GOP senators asking religious groups to help craft Equality Act compromise, sources say

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The offices of three Republican senators met with conservative religious groups late last month to ask for their help in crafting a bill similar to the controversial Equality Act, but one that includes protections for religious groups, sources familiar with the meeting told Fox News.

Representatives from the offices of Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Susan Collins, R-Maine, met with groups including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and American Principles Project, sources said.

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One source familiar with the approximately 2-hour meeting said that groups were asked to come up with “guiding principles” for a bill that would include the discrimination protections of the Equality Act while including guardrails to protect religious groups.

Another source told Fox that there are weekly working groups underway ahead of another meeting with the senators’ offices later this month, and the plan is to come up with principles that most can agree upon.

“The senators wanted to do something, but they wanted a suitable alternative to The Equality Act,” the source said.

The Equality Act passed the House in February and amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to bar the discrimination against people due to sexual orientation or gender identity in a sweeping number of areas — including education, employment and housing. It expands the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include both categories as protected categories.

President Biden has backed the bill, saying in a statement ahead of the February vote: “The Equality Act provides long overdue federal civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, locking in critical safeguards in our housing, education, public services, and lending systems — and codifying the courage and resilience of the LGBTQ+ movement into enduring law.”

Republicans and religious groups have warned that the bill would impinge on religious rights, and allow males to access female locker rooms and women-only sports. In its present state, it appears unlikely to pick up the 10 Republican votes it would need to pass the Senate. But a compromise with stronger religious protections might get support.

The senators’ respective offices did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Fox News, but one source familiar with the meeting told Fox that it could lead to what they saw as a “nightmare” situation where a bill with religious compromises gets enough Republican votes to pass the Senate — before the religious protections are killed by courts.

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“It’ll get squishy Republicans to join because of religious exemptions and then you’ll have courts strip those religious exemptions because they’re a license to discriminate and go against the heart of the bill,” the source said.

Another source said there was interest from many of the groups in participating in the process, but “there are a lot of differences of opinion, even within the groups as far as what they are able to accept.”

Many of those groups either did not return requests for comment or declined to comment. The USCCB, which represents the U.S. Catholic bishops, declined to comment, but in the past has made clear its opposition to the Equality Act itself.

“The Equality Act purports to protect people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender discordance from unjust discrimination. Although this is a worthy purpose, the Equality Act does not serve it,” the USCCB said in a statement on its website. “And instead of respecting differences in beliefs about marriage and sexuality, the Equality Act discriminates against people of faith precisely because of those beliefs.  In the process, the Equality Act codifies the new ideology of ‘gender’ in federal law, dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting ‘gender’ as only a social construct.”

One of the groups identified as being part of the meeting, the American Principles Project, said in a statement that it would not comment on or confirm any meetings with lawmakers, but added that it “strongly opposes the Equality Act and would oppose any Equality Act ‘Lite’ version with ‘SOGI’ [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity] language that would effectively eliminate religious freedom and civil rights protections for millions of Americans, including endangering athletic opportunities for women by forcing them to compete against biological males.”

“There is no compromise on this,” APP President Terry Schilling said. “The left is obsessively pushing the narrative that protecting women and children from radical ‘gender identity’ laws is a losing issue for Republicans. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

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The effort by the senators is not the only push for a compromise on the Equality Act. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, earlier this year re-introduced the Fairness For All Act, which tried to balance non-discrimination clauses with religious protections. That bill, while picking up support from organizations like the LDS Church, has so far not come up for a vote in the House.

“This country can accommodate both civil liberties for LGBT individuals & religious freedom,” Stewart said in a statement.

The debate over the bill comes as the debate over transgender rights has heated up. Bills restricting limiting participation in girls’ sports teams to those who are female in public schools have been enacted in a number of states. Meanwhile, Caitlyn Jenner, who came out as trans in 2015, is running to become governor of California as a Republican and has opposed “biological boys who are trans competing in girls sports in school.”

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