The Equality Act hurts the Black Church
The Black Church has served as the central institution in the life of the African American community since the ante-bellum period. It has served as a spiritual home, a site for social interaction, the place for mutual economic and other forms of support, a training ground for leadership and a site for organizing against racial and economic injustice. At least two recent studies show that the Black Church continues to play a critical role in providing support for poor people who are not members of the church. Today, the Equality Act poses a threat to the ability of the church to continue to play this role.
A vital motivation of the Black Church has been the biblical mandate to pursue justice for all people. For this reason, we passionately deplore acts of violence against individuals of any sexual orientation or gender identity. Having been victims of injustice, we call for the fair and just treatment of LGBTQ people in particular. However, that radical commitment to justice is rooted in our firm belief in the sovereign wisdom and love of our creator. The freedom to live in accordance with our faith is the core of the Black Church. Concomitantly, the freedom of every individual to obey her conscience is vital to the integrity of our nation. This freedom is at stake in the Equality Act.
Congress is currently considering the Equality Act, H.R. 5, to expand nondiscrimination provisions for the LGBTQ community on the back of federal civil rights protections enacted to combat race discrimination. While its supporters maintain that the bill would bring about a new era of Civil Rights, the Equality Act would effectively bar the door to civil service for orthodox religious groups by subjecting them to discrimination lawsuits for holding traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Many of these religious groups are Black.
I have written at length about the way in which religious freedom has impacted the Black Church for good and for ill throughout three key segments of American history. For the Black Church, enacted religious freedom — the ability to take action based on our faith, regardless of whether those actions are couched in terms of religious freedom — is central to the way in which we serve and engage our communities.
One study found that Black congregations outperformed white co-religionists in providing social services, even though they have fewer financial resources. But many Black churches hold to a traditional ethic of the human person that, under the Equality Act, would jeopardize their ability to offer services to members outside their congregation. At great loss to our communities.
Consider the outreach of countless religious organizations that have partnered with local, state and federal health officials to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Churches across the nation have opened their doors for people to receive free meals, get tested for the virus, and receive vaccination shots when they are eligible.
A prime example is the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in East Knoxville, Tenn., that opened the first vaccination clinic in the predominantly Black part of the city, protecting the city’s most vulnerable members.
Or take the Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., that has addressed issues surrounding vaccine inequity between whites and Blacks in the state.
Or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Middletown, Conn., that hosted community discussions with health officials to reduce vaccine hesitation among African Americans.
Throughout the United States, government has depended upon the charity of churches like these to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep at-risk populations safe. President Biden’s own administration has recruited numerous churches to help tackle the virus and save the nation’s most vulnerable individuals.
In addition, 80 percent of religious congregations across the United States operate social services such as food banks, homeless shelters, and clinics for the underserved. In short, the government depends on the very faith communities it now calls unfit to serve the most vulnerable members of our society. The loss of their civil service will not soon be made up by the creation of secular charities or the expansion of government programs.
The Black Church might be skeptical of the religious freedom movement, and with good reason. But the Equality Act presents a clear danger to the ways in which Black churches engage and serve our communities. It unnecessarily subjects the freedom of one group to that of another.
There is a better way. Let us instead work to find creative, innovative solutions to solving the problems of inequality, injustice, and discrimination without endangering the key institution that serves the Black community.
Rivers is the executive director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies. She holds a PhD from Harvard University where she also served as a Hutchins Fellow. She has lived and worked among the poor for thirty years.