All over the country the backlash to LGBT rights is getting bolder—more outrageous and more vitriolic—while anti-LGBT evangelical leaders, working within the base of the GOP, continue their attempts to disguise a religious crusade against fellow Americans as as struggle for “religious liberty.”
The intensity underscores why the Equality Act, re-introduced in the House of Representatives two weeks ago and which would protect LGBT people against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is so urgently needed.
That’s true even if the bill, getting its first-ever hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, will have an arduous path in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In Kansas, Republican lawmakers, backed by evangelical Christian leaders, introduced two bizarre but nonetheless horrendous bills earlier this year.
One bill, similar to bills introduced in Wyoming and South Carolina last year, seeks to define same-sex marriages as “parody marriages,” and define gay and transgender identities as “mythology,” part of a “religion of secular humanism” that violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The other bill states that same-sex marriages “erode community standards of decency, unlike secular marriage between a man and a woman.”
Tennessee Republicans are pushing the odiously-titled Natural Marriage Defense Act, introduced in February, which would prohibit the state from recognizing court decisions that affirm unions between people of the same gender.
In West Virginia a few weeks ago, a Republican legislator, in a repugnant statement, compared LGBT people to the KKK, while a group of LGBT youth in Wyoming allege that a GOP legislator stunned them in February when they visited her office and she told them that homosexuality was comparable to bestiality and pedophilia. (The legislator later denied making the statements.)
The outbursts aren’t just happening in red state America: In New York City, Bronx City Councilman Rubén Diaz Sr., in a reference to the Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is gay, warned that City Hall is “controlled by the homosexual community.”
Anti-LGBT forces, like many on the right, are clearly feeling energized. They’d been dealt a setback by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality ruling in 2015. But even before that they’d been planning and plotting what they would do if they lost, looking to the courts to try diminish marriage equality and LGBT rights, as they have done on abortion rights, chipping away at Roe v. Wade over a period of many years.
And they’ve now been electrified by President Donald Trump, whose administration has moved to roll back LGBT rights in so many areas.
From backing challenges to lower court rulings that favored LGBT rights and putting dozens of judges with alarming records of hostility to LGBT rights on the federal bench, to banning transgender people from the military and allowing religious exemptions to the Obama administration’s ban on discrimination against LGBT people among federal contractors, Trump has dealt jarring blows to equality.
Those opposed to LGBT rights have also been emboldened by a Supreme Court that has lurched to the far right, as the previous swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a leader on the high court on LGBT rights, was replaced by Trump with Brett Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh was White House staff secretary under President George W. Bush as the president promoted a federal marriage amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in the Constitution.
Support for Trump among Christian evangelicals, while dipping a bit at times, remains very strong. They’re satisfied with the administration’s often coded language on issues related to LGBT rights—as long as Trump and his administration get them results and falsely hold them up as the actual victims of discrimination.
In that vein, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Vice President Mike Pence struck back at critics of his wife, Karen, who took a job at a Christian evangelical school in Virginia that discriminates against LGBT students and faculty, banning them and deeming their very identities as “moral misconduct.” (Virginia is one of 28 states that offer no statewide protections against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.)
“Freedom of religion is under attack in our country,” Pence said, to thunderous applause. “My own family recently came under attack just because my wife Karen went back to teach art to children at a Christian school. Under this president and this administration, we will always stand with people of faith.”
Pence didn’t utter the words “gay” or “transgender” but that wasn’t necessary for the anti-LGBT conservatives who knew exactly what he was talking about. And the approach appears to pay off with another part of the Trump base as well. Bennett Kauffman, vice president of New York University’s College Republicans, told me after exiting the speech that he supported marriage equality and wasn’t “very socially conservative.” Nonetheless, he “really liked” Pence’s comments.
“If Mike Pence and his program was issue No. 1, targeting gay people, that would be a problem for me,” he said in an interview broadcast on my radio program, apparently unaware of how pervasively the Trump administration has indeed targeted LGBT rights.
It’s for that reason that the Equality Act is vital. In polls the majority of Americans support protecting LGBT people from discrimination, while a majority also actually believe LGBT people are already protected.
Even if the bill, overwhelmingly supporting in the Democratic-controlled House, won’t get passed in the current Senate—or even get a vote—the debate and discussion about it will educate the American people further and help advocates move it forward in the future.
There’s little time to lose. Several cases in the federal courts challenging state laws protecting LGBT people could reach the Supreme Court in days, weeks or months. The rulings could have a profound effect on rights in employment and public accommodations.
On the very day that Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate last October, the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, representing 25 churches, filed suit in federal court in Texas, claiming the city of Austin’s anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT people violated their religious freedom. Several days later, another conservative Christian group, filed a similar lawsuit in state court in Texas.
Those who oppose LGBT equality are using the courts to thwart it, a reversal of the role the courts played to expand LGBT rights. And Trump's court-packing plays to their strategy.
That not only underscores why protecting LGBT people within the 1964 Civil Rights Act is crucial, but ultimately how dangerous it will be for LGBT rights if Trump is re-elected and continues to install more anti-LGBT judges on the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court.