We Deserve More Than 'Asterisk Equality'

LGBT Americans desperately need employment protections.

It's important to repeat that sentence over and over again. Since about 90 percent of Americans mistakenly believe there are already federal workplace protections for LGBT Americans, we must continue to emphasize how desperately we need these legal protections.

I'm proud that GetEQUAL has been vocal about the need to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We've mobilized our grassroots network behind ENDA over the last year -- helping to create the momentum within the LGBT movement that we see right now. And it is this mobilization at the grassroots level across the country that has led us to the conclusion that we can no longer support this bill.

Let me explain.

One of the biggest reasons behind discrimination against LGBT workers is the personal religious views of the employer -- not the qualifications of the applicant or the performance of the employee. So, as we started mobilizing our grassroots networks and talking with folks on the ground, we started to hear deep concern about the broad religious exemptions contained within ENDA -- and we began to have a lot more questions than we had answers.

One of the things I'm most proud of with GetEQUAL is our willingness to be led by the voices of those on the ground -- and those voices on the ground are often far more courageous than I am. Though most national LGBT organizations are now pouring resources into the passage of ENDA -- something that we've been calling for again and again -- the passage of a bill shouldn't simply be an effort to check a box and pat ourselves on the back. The passage of a good bill requires us to have a broader view on the legislation than simply how it might impact the LGBT community. We must also look at what precedent the legislation sets for our community and for our allies -- and this version of ENDA simply doesn't make the cut.

At the same time we were hearing concern from LGBT folks on the ground about the broad religious exemptions within the bill, we began to hear similar concerns from friends working on issues of reproductive justice. Those friends are fighting dozens of court cases right now -- cases in which private employers are refusing to cover health care plans that offer contraception and many other women's health services simply because of the employer's personal religious views.

These private employers are wrapping their religious bigotry in the banner of "religious liberty" -- and it's not too far of a stretch to imagine that similar incidents might happen if an ENDA with the existing broad religious exemptions is passed. If we move forward with a version of ENDA that makes those loopholes even easier to manipulate, we will simply be doing our opponents' work for them -- and harming our allies in the reproductive justice movement at the same time.

Fundamentalist conservatives believe that "religious liberty" should trump all other democratic constructs -- including equal protection -- and we must call out that they're wrapping bigotry up in shiny packages of religious liberty and hoping no one notices. We've noticed. And many folks we've been talking to on the ground don't want those protections if it means that our equality will always have an asterisk behind it.

We, as a community and as a movement, can choose to just check a box and pat ourselves on the back, or we can choose to fight for a bill that we'll all be proud of. We can choose to demand a bill that treats us as fully equal -- with no asterisks.

Throughout my seminary education, I never once saw an asterisk behind Jesus' command to "love your neighbor." I never once saw an asterisk behind Jesus' admonitions to seek justice in the world and to show compassion to those who are suffering. And I refuse to believe that our equality should have an asterisk behind it simply because lobbyists believe that we can't pass an LGBT bill without exceptions for those who think bigotry should trump equal protection.

We do ourselves no favors by accepting and supporting a bill that permits religious bigotry to trump equal protection under the law. And we do ourselves no favors by putting a bad bill through the Senate and then a belligerent House, when President Obama could sign an Executive Order *TODAY* that would fully cover (without religious exemptions) all employees of federal contractors -- or about 25 percent of the American workforce.

I hope that progressive champions in the Senate will rise to this challenge by speaking out against the effort to disguise religious bigotry as religious liberty -- because I believe we deserve more than asterisk equality.