President Joe Biden won the White House in part because he was willing to reach out to a wide range of religious voters.
But, less than a week into his administration, many conservative Christians already believe the new president is disregarding their concerns.
Their anger primarily stems from an executive order Biden signed on Inauguration Day focused on anti-LGBTQ discrimination. It aims to protect gay and transgender Americans by expanding the scope of federal civil rights protections.
“Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love,” it reads.
The order explains that nearly all legal prohibitions on “sex discrimination” cover sexual orientation- and gender identity-based discrimination, as well. For that reason, it says, federal officials must ensure that gay and transgender Americans are treated the same as other participants in the programs they oversee.
“All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation,” the order reads.
Although the Supreme Court accepted this interpretation of “sex discrimination” in a recent ruling on employment law, some people of faith see the directive as an unjustified attack on religious values.
Moving forward, it will be harder for religious organizations and individuals that believe the Bible prohibits same-sex marriage and transgenderism to operate according to their beliefs, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in a statement.
The executive order could lead some faith-based social service agencies to lose government contracts and religious health care providers to lose their jobs.
“Ultimately, if this executive order is able to be fully carried out, it will affect everyday Americans who hold biblical and conservative values,” Perkins said.
If Biden truly cared about unity, he wouldn’t demand acceptance of controversial — and potentially harmful — beliefs, said Ryan Anderson, who will soon become president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in a column on the executive order.
“In his inaugural address, (Biden) stressed he wants to be the president of All Americans — left and right — and bring healing and unity to the nation. Actions speak louder than words,” he wrote.
Divided over discrimination
Until very recently, the idea that bans on “sex discrimination” cover anti-LGBTQ discrimination was far from mainstream.
Legal experts generally agreed that the phrase only applied to instances where someone was mistreated because of their biological sex, said Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, to the Deseret News in 2019.
But, as public support for LGBTQ rights grew, that consensus fell apart. By the time the issue reached the Supreme Court two years ago, the legal community was hotly divided over what “sex discrimination” really means.
“People who want sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity say that the term sex in its plain, textual meaning actually does encompass those other classifications,” Garnett said.
In a landmark decision delivered last June, the Supreme Court endorsed that interpretation by ruling that prohibitions against sex discrimination in the workplace also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in that decision, exactly what (civil rights law) forbids,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion, which was joined by five other justices.
The Supreme Court’s ruling disturbed many religious leaders, who worried they’d face a flood of lawsuits if their organizations continued to teach that the institution of marriage is reserved for unions of one man and one woman and that transgenderism is against God’s will.
Gorsuch anticipated these concerns when writing his ruling and promised that the court would address religious freedom protections in future cases.
“We are ... deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution; that guarantee lies at the heart of our pluralistic society,” he wrote.
However, this promise doesn’t amount to much in the short term, when federal officials will be implementing Biden’s executive order, Perkins said. Faith-based organizations may lose access to federal contracts and financial support as they fight related policies in court.
“Biden’s executive order effectively targets people of faith and faith-based organizations that provide social services that are even more vital in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.
A natural response
Despite the time and expense of legal and legislative battles, religious objectors to Biden’s order do plan to fight it in court and in Congress. It’s important to stand up for Americans’ right to live according to their religious beliefs, Anderson wrote.
“Through litigation and legislation, we need to make it clear that it’s lawful to act on the convictions that we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other,” he said.
It’s also important to point out Biden’s failure to live up to his promise to heal divides and call for fairer policies in the future, said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, in a statement.
“On a day where Biden and Democrats could have actually backed up their ‘unity’ talk by prioritizing assistance to American families amid the continuing pandemic, they instead have chosen to place their radical leftist agenda first,” he said.
Other people of faith have defended the president’s actions, arguing that Biden never said he’d abandon policies seen as controversial. Instead, the new president promised to fight fairly and to respect even those with whom he disagreed.
“Unity in all things isn’t possible. That’s why Biden also noted that deep & persistent disagreement is (a) feature of democratic life,” tweeted Heath Carter, an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, in response to Anderson’s tweets about the order.
LGBTQ rights advocates also expressed support for Biden’s directive, arguing it was a natural response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.
Moving forward, the new administration should look to do even more to protect gay and transgender Americans, not less, said James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project, in a statement.
“We will work with the Biden administration to ensure this executive order is fully implemented and that the federal government aggressively pursues reports of discrimination against LGBTQ people — not just in the workplace, but in education, housing, health care, and taxpayer-funded programs,” he said.