By John Riley
On Tuesday, a coalition of progressive religious leaders and people of faith held an interfaith vigil and rally in support of the Equality Act on Capitol Hill, where they prayed for guidance and help as they try to convince congressional Republicans to vote in favor of the sweeping LGBTQ rights legislation.
The vigil, held on the steps of the United Methodist Building, next door to the U.S. Supreme Court and just across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building, served as a call to action as well as a testament to the idea that — despite the insistence of some social conservatives — being LGBTQ or supporting LGBTQ equality is not contradictory with being a person of faith.
Organized by the Faith in Equality Coalition, the event brought together representatives from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the LGBTQ Jewish organization Keshet, the Religious Institute, Advocates for Youth, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Center for American Progress, Faith in Public Life, and clergy from various denominations, including the Metropolitan AME Church of Washington, D.C. and the United Methodist Church.
“In our faith community, we believe we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, principalities, and spiritual weakness in high places. And we believe that prayer is war. So right now, we’re going to war,” the Rev. Peter S. Simmons-Scie, of Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., said before leading the 50 or so rally attendees in prayer.
“Eternal spirit, the author of all existence, the creator of humanity, who created each of us with individual distinctions, though we may have similar characteristics, by your wisdom, no two individuals are completely alike. We all are authentic in our individuality,” Simmons-Scie prayed. “…Help us honor and respect the diversity of humanity. Help us reach the powers that be.
“I believe you have the power to change the hearts of those who are obsessed with power and privilege. Help them realize that human life is precious, and all humanity should be equally treated. Help us to pass the Equality Act. Help those who believe that this movement only involves LGBTQ+ rights come to their senses. This fight is for human rights.”
Following the vigil, the attendees split into five groups to deliver a statement, signed by more than 5,000 people of faith, in support of the Equality Act, to the offices of Republican lawmakers who have not yet taken a position but have supported pro-LGBTQ bills or amendments in the past.
The statement articulates why people of faith support the bill, contending that “it is possible to both protect LGBTQ people from unjust discrimination and uphold the freedom of religion.”
In their pitches to staffers of the congressional lawmakers, some organizers cited a recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute, complete with polling, showing that millions of people of faith — and majorities of many religious denominations — support laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
The final lobbying push comes just days before the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the Equality Act on Friday, May 17.
Already, 234 of 235 Democratic representatives (and four non-voting delegates) have co-sponsored the bill and are expected to vote in favor of final passage.
But gaining additional Republican lawmakers — besides Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), who are already cosponsors — would help proponents of the act more convincingly make the argument that the LGBTQ rights measure has bipartisan support and should be considered and given an up-or-down vote in the U.S. Senate.
Many political observers have noted that such a development is unlikely as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains in power.
Furthermore, the stated opposition of President Donald Trump to the act all but ensures a pro-LGBTQ rights measure will never pass under a Republican president, but supporters say that’s no reason not to to make the case for the bill’s passage and take that message to the broader American public.
“It’s a done deal in the House. But positive reinforcement is always a good thing,” says rally attendee David Fishback, a Reform Jew who serves as the Maryland advocacy chair for the Metro D.C. Chapter of PFLAG. “The struggle will continue for a while. Certainly, there’s no anticipation that, even if there were enough votes in the Senate to pass it, that Mitch McConnell would allow it to come to a vote. But it’s a long process. We made a lot of progress over the past 15, 20 years, and it’s been pushed back, but we don’t give up. We get back on the horses and keep riding on. This is part of the ongoing effort to help educate people, educate the public, and continue to make good on the promises we’ve already made.”
Mason Dunn, a transgender man who serves as director of advocacy for Keshet, who was a featured speaker at the rally, says that a show of support for LGBTQ rights from faith communities is not only crucial in gaining political leverage, but in demonstrating to LGBTQ individuals that there is a community that embraces them.
“I think it’s so important, knowing that my faith has my back, and that my representatives and people in government have my back,” says Dunn. “We know that transgender people, particularly transgender people of color, face disproportionate levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence. We’ve already lost a number of transgender women to violence this year. So knowing that and hearing that communities of faith support and understand the discrimination we face is important, and can save lives.”
The Rev. Angela Flanagan, of Silver Spring United Methodist Church, says her support for the Equality Act is guided by the principles of her religion and her belief that all people are made in the image of God.
“Specifically, in my Methodist or Wesleyan heritage, there are three simple rules, and the first of those is to do no harm,” says Flanagan. “So the very first step in our decision-making process should be to do no harm, then to do only good, and to stay in love with God. First and foremost is to make sure we are not doing harm to any of God’s beloved children.”
Flanagan and a team of three other activists reiterated those sentiments and touched upon those larger themes when they went to the offices of Republican Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) with messages asking them to vote in favor of the Equality Act.
Flanagan adds that the provisions in the Equality Act that specifically prevent the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being used to discriminate against people align with the Wesleyan concept of doing no harm.
She also rejects arguments that the act somehow infringes on religious liberty.
“No one’s ability to practice their religion is being threatened in any way, but people’s real lives are being threatened, as we see a growing rise in suicide and self-harm, especially among LGBTQ youth and young people,” she says. We are tremendously concerned with the safety of those people. That is the harm that is being done, not to people’s religious rights. Everyone is free to practice their own religion.”
Lastly, as a woman, Flanagan says she does not feel threatened by protections for transgender individuals — a point of contention frequently raised by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee during hearings on the Equality Act two weeks ago.
“I see gender as a spectrum. We would do well to stop boxing people in,” she says. “I serve a God who has a habit of breaking binaries — even the binary of life and death in the Resurrection. I understand that God continues to break down all of the walls that we continue to construct. We tend to not give God enough credit for how big God’s grace is.”