Re-affirms need for comprehensive Equality Act and highlights harms from proposed alternative
[New York, NY] Today marks the first time a coalition of conservative religious voices have recognized that LGBT people in America face unfair discrimination. The Fairness for All Act introduced by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), acknowledges that our nation’s civil rights laws should protect all people in America from violence, harassment, and discrimination, including when based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A strong majority of Americans – across political parties, religious beliefs, and backgrounds – share this belief. SAGE welcomes this progress and the growing common ground and shared values that it reflects.
SAGE affirms that religious pluralism and freedom of religion are core American values. We believe that all people should enjoy freedom of belief, worship, and association. The false narrative that LGBT people and people of faith have no common or shared interests has been deeply divisive and wounding. This is why SAGE works with a broad array of faith-based organizations and leaders to advance a shared agenda of mutual respect in the context of an inclusive approach to the LGBT community. We look forward to finding opportunities to build understanding and partnership with the religious leaders and organizations that are taking this important step in favor of LGBT equality.
Having said this, SAGE cannot support the Fairness for All Act legislation introduced today because it does not adequately protect LGBT elders, and LGBT people in general, from discrimination. Moreover, the proposed bill is inconsistent with the healthy balance between anti-discrimination protections and religious freedom struck by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has long reflected a broad American consensus and protected the rights of a vast array of historically disenfranchised people and communities. Instead, we continue to strongly support the substantially more comprehensive protections of the Equality Act.
SAGE’s mission strongly informs our perspective. Because religiously-affiliated institutions and people of faith provide a significant proportion of health services and housing, as well as a wide range of aging services and supports, LGBT older people and those living with HIV, are uniquely impacted by and vulnerable-to religious-based discrimination. A report by SAGE, Columbia University Law School’s Public Rights / Private Conscience Project, and the Movement Advancement Project notes that 85% of continuing care retirement facilities are religiously affiliated.
To the extent that the legislation introduced today provides explicit protections for discriminatory religious-based employee speech, including for those charged with providing essential elder care, LGBT older people could be at significant risk. We cannot allow religious convictions to overshadow the responsibility that all providers have to care for sick and dying people or those who need assistance as they age.
Moreover, ample evidence and experience indicate that LGBT older people are subjected to very high levels of discrimination in housing and care. To the extent that the legislation proposed today could weaken existing protections under the Fair Housing Act, it could exacerbate the housing crisis that LGBT elders already face.
LGBT older people know that this is not a theoretical concern. In 2016, Mary Walsh and Bev Nance, a married lesbian couple, were denied admission to a residential elder care facility in St. Louis because their marriage was not recognized as a “biblical marriage” by the facility. Protections for discriminatory speech like those proposed in today’s legislation would create perils for people like Mary and Bev. Even if they managed to be admitted to a care facility, anti-LGBT proselytizing from care workers might well be classified as protected speech – and LGBT elders would be the victims. Unwelcome proselytizing and discriminatory speech are not acceptable for any older person in care, including LGBT older people.
SAGE welcomes today’s call to Congress to urgently take up legislation that will explicitly and comprehensively address the severe gaps in our nation’s non-discrimination laws. We welcome the voices of religious organizations and all organizations and people of goodwill in ongoing discussions in pursuit of our shared goal of equality and freedom from violence, harassment and discrimination. We at SAGE believe that the Equality Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed this year, is the best remedy to achieve these goals.
SAGE is the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) older people. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBT older people and their caregivers. SAGE also advocates for public policy changes that address the needs of LGBT elders, provides education and technical assistance for aging providers and LGBT community organizations through its National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, and cultural competency training through SAGECare. With staff located across the country, SAGE also coordinates SAGENet, a growing network of affiliates in the United States.