The Equality Act will be a victory for religious freedom

The Equality Act will be a victory for religious freedom
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The Equality Act, the historic civil rights legislation that would finally grant LGBTQ people basic nondiscrimination protections in our federal laws, gets its first-ever U.S. Senate hearing today. What people may be surprised to learn, however, is that the Equality Act does more than protect LGBTQ Americans; it also expands existing civil rights protections for people of faith, as well as for women, people of color, immigrants and more.

While I don’t identify as LGBTQ myself — just as an ally of the LGBTQ community — as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, I know what it’s like to experience discrimination because of my religion. In recent years, I have opted more and more often to cover my head with a hoodie or beanie instead of a hijab to avoid discrimination on the basis of my religion, particularly when seeking medical care. There are far too many stereotypes about Muslim women who cover ourselves — particularly the ludicrous idea that some male member of my family is making all of my decisions for me — and I want health care providers to know I have agency over my own medical decisions. 

In most of my daily life, our nation’s laws guarantee me religious freedom: the ability to live and to worship free from harm. Unfortunately, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes protections based on religion, it does not actually protect people of faith in all places open to the public. While its protections include hotels and restaurants, these protections do not extend to a number of other places open to the public, such as health care providers, airlines, retail stores, hair salons, banks and ride shares. In cities and states that have not passed their own nondiscrimination laws, I can be refused service and cast out of any of these establishments, just because of how I choose to pray. 

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The Equality Act will change that. In addition to providing LGBTQ people the basic right to live free from discrimination, the bill will ensure people of faith and others have the right to nondiscrimination in public places nationwide. People of all faiths — including those who are LGBTQ and not — should welcome the Equality Act’s protections. And in fact, over 5 million LGBTQ Americans identify as people of faith. They deserve to be protected in all areas of their public life.

The irony is that many of those who oppose the Equality Act cite religious freedom as a reason. They claim their religious teachings about gender and sex mean they should be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people in public places. But religious freedom should only ever be about protecting our own rights to live free from discrimination; it should never be the terms on which we negotiate freedoms for others. 

One of our fundamental principles as Americans is the notion that all people are created equal and entitled to the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every generation has to be diligent about ensuring our nation better lives up to that promise. As a member of a religious group that comprises approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population, I know that most public places are not owned and operated by members of my religious group. My co-religionists and I are vulnerable to discrimination almost everywhere we go. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are not interested in discriminating against us. 

Religious freedom is part and parcel of our civil rights framework and has coexisted with other equal access protections within our laws for decades. It is ludicrous to suggest that including LGBTQ people in our existing nondiscrimination laws will disrupt this precedent. 

I’m grateful that the vast majority of Americans agree that discrimination should not be allowed against LGBTQ people. 83 percent, in fact, support the establishment of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections in our federal laws. A sizable majority of every major religious group in America supports this common-sense update to our civil rights laws.

We have a civil rights crisis in this country. There are over 11 million LGBTQ people in this country, and in 29 states they have no state-level legal protections in their public accommodations, housing, education and more. In a survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, over a third of LGBTQ people reported experiencing some form of discrimination in the past year. The impacts of discrimination can last a lifetime. In fact, in the midst of a pandemic, one in five LGBTQ people currently live in poverty. It is time to finally change that. The Equality Act helps us live up to our nation’s promise. Advocates for our nation’s civil rights — from LGBTQ equality to religious freedom — have cause to celebrate together.

We can’t allow the opponents of the Equality Act to misrepresent it as an attack on religious freedom. As a Muslim woman who has spent a large part of my career fighting for religious freedom, I know this is the opposite of reality. 

Maggie Siddiqi is the senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.