Equality Act Has Religious Right Cranking Apocalyptic Religious Freedom Rhetoric to 11

Some participants in Gone Too Far's February 5, 2019 press conference opposing the Equality Act. (Photo: Peter Montgomery / Right Wing Watch)

On May 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which would expand federal civil rights laws to include protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In the months before and weeks after the vote, Religious Right groups have portrayed the Equality Act in apocalyptic terms, claiming its passage would lead to the legalization of pedophilia, force elementary school math classes to include discussions of “transgenderism,” and doom religious freedom in America.

The intensely alarmist religious freedom rhetoric suggests that Religious Right political strategists will once again use fear-mongering of liberals’ supposed desire to “criminalize Christianity” to motivate turnout of conservative evangelical voters in 2020.

A few months ago, after the Equality Act was introduced, a new and intensely anti-gay coalition called “Gone Too Far” was created to fight the legislation. Its launch event featured vicious rhetorical attacks on civil rights leaders and a bizarre charge that the LGBT community was somehow colluding with Big Pharma to use vaccines to spread disease in the black community. The group’s coordinator, pastor Randy Short, told the Pentecostal-oriented media outlet Charisma, “This is a pedophile amnesty bill. It opens the back door to pedophilia being legalized and given federal protection.” Notorious anti-gay activist Scott Lively also appeared at the press conference and charged that the Equality Act was about “LGBT supremacy” and promoting the “pedophile agenda.”

In March, James Dobson warned that the Equality Act is “a thinly veiled attempt to finish off religious liberty in America once and for all.” Dobson claimed that “by creating a protected class of citizens out of the LGBT community, this bill places Christians who believe in traditional marriage at grave legal and civil jeopardy.” The American Family Association’s One News Now characterized Dobson’s remarks in a March headline as warning that Democrats were using the Equality Act to “snuff out” Christianity. The article warned, “In essence, Scripture related to sexual morality would be banned and condemned as ‘discriminatory’ or ‘hate speech.’”

In April, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver appeared on a Charisma News podcast, where he said the Equality Act “eviscerates religious freedom and targets churches with an LGBT wrecking ball.”

Rhetoric intensified in the weeks leading up to the May 17 vote. The Alliance Defending Freedom warned that the Equality Act “poses a devastating and unprecedented threat to religious freedom.” In Charisma, a columnist warned that the bill would “criminalize sincerely held Judeo-Christian views and values.” In a May 16 email, former Colorado legislator Gordon Klingenschmitt warned that the legislation would put “a great big bulls eye on every house of worship in the nation.”

Just before the vote, 21 Religious Right leaders released a letter to congressional leaders declaring that “the ideology enshrined in the Equality Act … is a falsehood that openly contradicts the scriptural mandates we were given for our good … We cannot remain silent and allow this lie to harm countless men, women, and children – whether in this or any other legislation … No family would be safe from the long reach of the Equality Act.” The letter called the Act “incompatible with God’s Word (the Bible) and the historic teaching of the church.”

In an email alert on the eve of the House vote, anti-LGBTQ activist Brian Brown called the Equality Act “the most pernicious attack we’ve ever faced” and “a sweeping assault on the religious liberty rights of people of faith while simultaneously enacting powerful special legal rights for the LGBT community. Perhaps even worse, the legislation effectively makes showing support for traditional marriage to be illegal discrimination under federal law.” That, of course, is a lie. Brown’s National Organization for Marriage has created a website denouncing what it calls the “Inequality Act.”

Dobson, having set a high standard for hyperbole with his March remarks, managed to exceed them in his statement after the House vote:

In the history of our nation, there have been times when evil was so apparent — and so heinous — that they stand in infamy decades later. They include the Dred Scott Decision on slavery in 1857, and the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in 1973. Now, we are faced with another such tragic moment in American history.

A few days ago, on May 17, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed what they call The Equality Act of 2019, which is breathtaking in its scope. If it survives a vote in the Senate, this legislation will represent one of the most egregious assaults on religious liberty ever foisted on the people of this great nation. It therein imposes a thinly veiled death-sentence to the First Amendment to the Constitution and takes away the protections against tyranny handed down to us by our Founding Fathers. It was this unyielding commitment to religious liberty that led to American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783. The pastors and the patriots of that day died to free themselves from British imperialism. Thank God for the men who stood courageously against the most powerful military in the world, because freedom meant more to them than their own lives.

Let me speak candidly and passionately to people of faith throughout these United States of America. We must not remain silent as our historic liberties are gutted by Democrats and their friends in the LGBT movement. They will enslave us if they prevail. We must let our voices be heard, first in the U.S Senate, and then to the world.

Viva liberty. Viva the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Viva biblical values and beliefs. And woe to those who would try to take them from us.

Dobson wasn’t alone in his over-the-top response to the House vote. Staver called the bill “unpatriotic and dangerous” and “the most serious threat to life and liberty ever proposed by Congress.” Staver lied about the legislation to amplify the threat he said it posed to religious freedom. “It even criminalizes those who share their own story of finding freedom in Christ from homosexuality in a book or speaking engagement,” Staver said. “This bill literally sets the stage for banning the Bible, which offers the power to free those wanting to turn away from homosexual conduct.”

The American Family Association’s Tim Wildmon cranked up his own outrage in an explicitly partisan press release after House vote:

The Equality Act is designed to wield a wrecking ball to religious liberty… Tim Wildmon. “The bill has nothing to do with equality, but everything to do with punishing Christians’ religious liberty. The result will unleash radical liberals to attack those whose faith teaches that marriage is only between one man and one woman, and that sexual identity of male and female is a fixed, biological fact. As the Democrat Party’s platform states, “We support a progressive vision of religious freedom that respects pluralism and rejects the misuse of religion to discriminate,” it’s clear party members have clearly laid out their intent to force Christians into subjugation to radical sexual deviancy.

Right-wing pundits and politicians also weighed in. Washington Times contributor Robert Knight wrote after the House vote that the Equality Act would “criminalize Christianity” and he denounced its “toxic blend of mad science and totalitarian intent.” Knight quoted Robert Gagnon, a professor at Houston Baptist University. “It is the most dangerous bill to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion that has ever been proposed on a national level,” Gagnon told Knight. “It will codify into law that you are a bigot, the moral equivalent of a racist, tantamount to being a member of the Klu Klux Klan, who must be shut out of society and, wherever possible, harassed and persecuted for your beliefs.”

Religious Right broadcaster Todd Starnes, always eager to hype the threat of anti-Christian persecution in the U.S., hosted Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) on his radio show, where Hice said the legislation “totally destroys religious liberties.”

That kind of rhetoric continues unabated. A Tuesday afternoon email from Jerry Boykin—resent Thursday morning—warned of a “catastrophic threat to religious freedom.” Boykin is a retired lieutenant general who serves as executive vice president of the Family Research Council and its political advocacy arm. He warned that “every Bible believing citizen will suffer the consequences” if the bill became law. Boykin’s email asks recipients to sign a petition that says in part, “The Equality Act is an all-out assault on parental rights, on the family, and on millions of people of faith in our nation.” Boykin warns:

Imagine an America where religious hospitals are forced to perform abortions. Where Bible-believing churches could be forced to hire pastors and other employees who don’t follow the teachings of the church and could be required to host same-sex wedding ceremonies. Where Christian schools are forced to cater to the preferences of students who identify as transgender, threatening the privacy and safely of young girls.

If the U.S. Senate passes the “Equality Act,” this is the future that could lie before us.

Boykin and other Religious Right leaders have slammed the eight Republican House members who voted with Democrats to pass the Equality Act. The group Schlafly Eagles—part of the splintered political legacy of the late Phyllis Schlafly—called the eight Republicans who voted for the bill “traitors” and said they “should be run out of office.” In his email newsletter, Klingenschmitt asserted that those eight Republicans “hate religious freedom.” Staver delcared, “No one who voted for the misnamed ‘Equality Act’ deserves to serve in Congress.”

Mission America’s Linda Harvey has proposed 10 amendments that Senate Republicans could consider, though she hopes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will never let the Equality Act come to the floor. Harvey admits that her amendments would leave the bill “stripped pretty bare,” saying, “Okay, I might be dreaming—but then, I dream of an America where homosexuals and gender anarchists are not in charge.”

For the record, Religious Right leaders made similar wildly inflammatory and utterly false warnings about the passage of LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation in 2009. They claimed it would protect pedophiles, “criminalize” pastors, and make it a federal crime for Christians to share “politically” incorrect parts of their faith. It has been a decade since the law’s passage and we have yet to see pastors being thrown in jail for anti-gay sermons or TV appearances.