In recent weeks, I have heard some questions from Idahoans about a bill in Congress that I am cosponsoring: H.R. 1440, the Fairness for All Act. It has come to my attention that certain misconceptions about this bill have spread via social media and even the press, and I would like to take the time to give the facts about this important bill.
In 2019, one year into their new majority status, House Democrats made good on a campaign promise to introduce civil rights legislation aimed at prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. H.R. 5, which Democrats dubbed the Equality Act, proposed to amend the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. However, the bill did not include traditional religious liberty protections. In fact, it sought to revoke the conscience protections in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, meaning that under the Democrats’ bill, doctors and nurses could be forced to provide abortion-related services or transgender surgeries, regardless of their religious or moral objections. It even threatened to insert the federal government into a church’s employment decisions and to turn houses of worship into places of public accommodation, as if a chapel or synagogue is legally the same as a gas station. H.R. 5 also weakened Title IX’s protections for women and girls’ sports, eliminating the ability to provide separate spaces, services, and protections for the privacy of women and girls.
I oppose discrimination of all kinds, and I support efforts to ensure that no one is treated unfairly. However, I also believe that Americans’ Constitutional right to religious freedom is a foundational liberty that must not be eroded. I voted against H.R. 5 when it came before the House of Representatives in 2019 and 2021 for many reasons, but the threat to religious liberty was chief among them.
Some Republicans in Congress, led by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), recognized that while H.R. 5 was bad policy, it was not enough to simply vote against the legislation. Democrats are committed to passing a bill that prevents LGBT discrimination, and it is important to offer a counter proposal that achieves that goal while also ensuring strong protections for religious freedom. That is why, when Rep. Stewart introduced the Fairness For All Act (FFAA, H.R. 1440 in the 117th Congress), I joined as a cosponsor. Currently, there are 18 Republican cosponsors of the legislation, and no Democrat cosponsors. The bill has not yet received a vote in Congress.
FFAA is based on the principles that no American should lose their home or job simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and that all religious persons should be free to live, work or serve their community in ways that are consistent with their faith. The bill is the result of many months of negotiations between LGBT advocacy and religious groups, and is based on Utah’s SB296, a hard-fought compromise bill that passed in 2015. Notably, related lawsuits in Utah have all but ceased since SB296’s passage. In Idaho, former Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, set up a working group in 2019 to develop legislation to protect LGBT Idahoans from discrimination while also protecting religious rights. Senator Hill was right when at that time he said, “The risks of doing nothing are great on both sides.”
Contrary to some misinformation I have seen, the Fairness For All Act would not prioritize any person’s rights above anyone else. At a time when Democrats are passing legislation that would decimate religious liberties and conscience rights, H.R. 1440 presents a conservative alternative, crafted to preserve the First Amendment right of all persons to freely exercise their religion. The bill defines gender identity as an evidence-based status that must be “sincerely held” and not asserted “for an improper purpose.” These restrictions prevent someone from trying to enter a bathroom or shower area to commit a crime or to interfere with others’ privacy. Under this legislation, crimes – like violations of privacy or sexual violence – remain crimes.
Most importantly, the bill protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations and religious colleges and universities and protects health care providers and owners of small businesses whose religious and moral principles prevent them from participating in activities that are contrary to their conscience and beliefs. The Fairness For All Act is endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the AND Campaign, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The National Association of Evangelicals and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have also expressed support for protecting both sets of rights, as the FFAA does. Along with these religious organizations, I believe it is time to put the fight over civil liberties to rest by supporting conservative legislation, like the Fairness for All Act, that secures religious liberties once and for all.
This column appeared in the Magic Valley Times-News.