The Equality Act Is Latest Push in Biden’s Prioritization of Transgender Issue
The Biden administration continues to advance the transgender cause through legislation and appointees.
WASHINGTON — According to President Joe Biden, transgender equality is the “civil-rights issue of our time” — and he’s implementing that belief via his early presidential priorities.
Most notably at this political moment, Biden is strongly backing the recent advancement of federal legislation that would dramatically redefine gender in civil-rights law.
In addition, the U.S. Senate is now considering his nominee for assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services: Dr. Rachel Levine, a biological man who has “transitioned” to a female identity and who has made statements backing puberty blockers and hormone treatments for children identifying as a different gender.
The Equality Act, which would ban discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation and gender identity,” passed the U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 25 in a 224-206 vote. While the Equality Act also passed the House in 2019, this time it has the backing of the Biden White House, as on the campaign trail Biden labeled it a “No. 1 priority” for his first 100 days in office. However, the bill has received pushback from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many other groups over its lack of religious-freedom exceptions and its redefinition of gender being codified in civil-rights law.
In a joint letter, the heads of five USCCB committees wrote to the House before the vote warning, “the Equality Act purports to protect people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender discordance from discrimination. But instead, the bill represents the imposition by Congress of novel and divisive viewpoints regarding ‘gender’ on individuals and organizations. This includes dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting ‘gender’ as only a social construct.”
The bishops highlighted some specific adverse consequences of the bill, saying its new requirements based on the redefinition of gender would “punish faith-based charities such as shelters and foster-care agencies, and in turn their thousands of beneficiaries, simply because of their beliefs on marriage and sexuality” and “force both people and organizations in many everyday life and work settings to speak or act in support of ‘gender transitions,’ including health-care workers and licensed counselors, even when it’s against their professional judgment.”
They pointed out that the bill expands “the government’s definition of public places into numerous settings, even forcing religiously operated spaces, such as some church halls and equivalent facilities owned by synagogues or mosques, to either host functions that violate their beliefs or close their doors to their broader communities.”
The USCCB is calling on the faithful to tell Congress to oppose the legislation.
While many Democratic politicians and groups have mobilized to pass the bill, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate because it would need 60 votes to bypass a filibuster. The Senate is currently split by party 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. While there has been pressure to eliminate the filibuster in favor of a 51-vote majority to push through Biden’s legislative priorities like the Equality Act, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have emphatically stated that they are opposed to that move, making it an unlikely scenario.
Republicans regarded as moderate also appear unlikely to break ranks with the GOP’s strong opposition to the Equality Act. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has signaled his opposition to the legislation, with a representative commenting to The Washington Blade that “strong religious-liberty protections are essential to any legislation on this issue, and since those provisions are absent from this particular bill, he is not able to support it.” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who occasionally votes with Democrats, stated last month that she would not be a co-sponsor of the legislation in the Senate because there were “changes” that needed to be made to the bill that her Democratic colleagues were “unwilling to work out.”
Transgender HHS Nominee’s Comments
Senate debates over the transgender issue occurred in late February outside of the context of the Equality Act, during the confirmation hearings for Levine, Biden’s transgender nominee for HHS assistant secretary.
“Do you support the government intervening to override the parent’s consent to give a child puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and/or amputation surgery of breasts and genitalia?” asked Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Levine, who is a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, would not answer the question, instead replying by saying that “transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field,” and “if confirmed to the position of assistant secretary of health, I would certainly be pleased to come to your office and to talk to you and your staff about the standards of care and the complexity of this field.”
“I’m alarmed that you won’t say with certainty that minors should not have the ability to make the decision to take hormones that will affect them for the rest of their life,” Paul retorted.
In 2017, Levine said at a conference at Franklin & Marshall College that teens could take puberty blockers with the consent of parents and physicians and 14- to 16-year-olds could take cross-gender hormones. Levine also said that homeless youth “do not have the ‘luxury’ of protocols, so the transition process could be ‘accelerated’ for them.”
Roger Severino, the outgoing director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights who is now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), spoke with the Register about the Biden administration’s prioritization of transgender issues, which he said is apparent in the push for the Equality Act and in Biden’s nomination of Levine.
Severino, who is suing the Biden White House over their removing him from the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), told the Register that he believes Levine is a “very divisive pick” for HHS assistant secretary for health. He said it “suggests that President Biden is more interested in fanning the flames of the culture war than in finding answers to COVID-19.”
Severino said that during his time at HHS he met with Levine and, “in that conversation, I asked what I thought was a very simple question, which was, ‘What does it mean to be a man or a woman?’ and Dr. Levine couldn’t answer that very simple question. And I would think any scientist should be able to answer it because it’s pretty well established what that means; but because of what I believe is [deemed] ideology, all of a sudden, the question becomes clouded and confused, subjective, and it starts departing from scientific principles, which is, of course, bad for medicine.” He said his fear is “based on my personal interactions with Dr. Levine, that ideology is going to start trumping science on this question.”
He said that Levine’s refusal to answer Paul’s question about transgender treatments for minors “speaks volumes.” During his own meeting with Levine, “the question on children arose where Dr. Levine said that there’s a biological basis in the brain that would explain gender dysphoria, essentially saying that you could have a female brain in the male-presenting body and therefore surgery would be indicated even in adolescent children.”
He said, “The answer, according to Dr. Levine, is Yes, you can actually do sex-reassignment surgeries on gender-dysphoric adolescents, and I heard it directly myself.” He thought it was “disingenuous” of Levine not to answer Paul’s question “because the answer is known, but it was more a tactic to avoid facing that reality because that reality is problematic for a person of science to say, ‘Yes, children are fully capable of making these life-altering decisions and using off-label cross-sex hormones and removing perfectly healthy reproductive organs.’”
Transgenderism vs. Religious Liberty
Severino also has strong concerns over the Biden administration’s treatment of religious freedom on the transgender issue. He cited a comment Levine made that the HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom division, which Severino founded at the Civil Rights Office, should be “either disbanded or certainly redirected.” He viewed Levine’s comment as “disqualifying because the conscience division is there to enforce laws passed with bipartisan majorities by Congress that stretched back decades.”
As for the Biden administration’s push for the Equality Act, he said the legislation is an “anti-religious bill,” as “it proposes for the first time in history to strip away existing religious-freedom protections. The bill explicitly says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would not apply.”
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, limits the government’s ability to “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” to cases where the government can demonstrate that the burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering” a “compelling government interest.”
Severino said that excluding RFRA “is an unprecedented move that smacks of religious bigotry. Imagine if any other civil-rights law were excluded.” He said the bill “will threaten the rights of religious institutions in particular who have a different view than the left on these sensitive questions. There has to be room in America for disagreement, and the Equality Act instead says there shall be no room for dissent, and if you disagree with the subjective view of a person's sex, then you are a bigot and will be hounded out of the public square.”
Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, told the Register the Equality Act’s elimination of RFRA as a defense to charges of discrimination means “that Catholic hospitals will be sued if they don’t permit physicians to perform double mastectomies on teen girls who want their breasts amputated in order to appear masculine. Employees who fail to affirm the ‘transgender’ identities of fellow employees or clients are likely to get fired — even if they have conscience-based reasons for their actions.”
The legislation “will result in harms that reverberate throughout society,” Hasson said, including women losing “their privacy and safety. … Gender identity is self-defined, so any male who ‘identifies’ as a woman will have a ‘right’ to enter the women’s locker room at your local swimming pool, join a women’s-only support group for sexual-assault survivors, and demand to be roomed with women in local hospitals, jails and nursing homes.”
Warned Hasson, “No Catholic can avoid this issue — it will affect your life and the lives of those you love.”
Women’s Shelter Perspective
A clash between a municipal ordinance similar to the Equality Act and the privacy rights of women at a faith-based shelter occurred in 2018. Downtown Hope Center, a soup kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska, which becomes an overnight shelter for women who have experienced rape, domestic or sexual abuse, and sex trafficking, was faced with a complaint after turning away a biological male who was inebriated and wished to stay in their facilities overnight. The city of Anchorage backed the complaint, initiating a court battle.
After the city suffered a loss in federal court, the complaint was settled in favor of the Downtown Hope Center, with a payment to them of $100,000 in court fees and $1 in damages. But Sherrie Laurie, the executive director of Downtown Hope Center, told the Register that she saw “the impact” of the city’s ordinance “on the women, given the abuses they’ve been through and the long road to recovery for them.”
Said Laurie, “We are actually concerned about the Equality Act because of what we’ve seen similar laws do here in Anchorage.”
“We truly do believe all people deserve dignity and respect,” she said. “We have a lot of other services we provide to all people; and we’re a Christian organization, so we’re loving them with the love of Christ. But, in this particular case, where these women are sleeping at night and coming to us for safety, we have to protect that space. And so the Equality Act is very unfair to these women and would violate their right for privacy and their dignity by forcing them to share this space with biological men.”
Kate Anderson, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the shelter in the case, told the Register that the Equality Act is “a dangerous law, and it’s bad for women and girls.” She said that the Downtown Hope shelter is meant to be “a safe place for women to sleep in accord with the centers’ religious beliefs.”
Many of the women served by the shelter, Anderson added, have said that “if biological men were allowed to come in, that they would have to leave the shelter — because of the anxiety and trauma, that they would choose to sleep in the woods in the Alaska winter because that’s a safer place for them, given the experiences that they’ve had.”