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Equality Act Would Extend Civil Rights Laws To LGBTQ People Throughout U.S.

Charleston resident Tia Clark teaches tourists the coastal South Carolina tradition of catching blue crabs. She and her wife say the Equality Act would make it easier for them to adopt a child.
Matt LeGault
Charleston resident Tia Clark teaches tourists the coastal South Carolina tradition of catching blue crabs. She and her wife say the Equality Act would make it easier for them to adopt a child.

Charleston native Tia Clark has learned to endure discrimination in conservative South Carolina, one of roughly two dozen states with few or no laws protecting LGBTQ people.

The 41-year-old fled a decades long career in the food and beverage industry, in part she says, because of discrimination by customers.

"I don't want to be in this fight and for me, I fought my whole life," says Clark.

So, she started her own business teaching tourists a coastal tradition: how to catch blue crabs. She never dreamed she could be her own boss. But she made it happen.

"That came from my tough skin of being a black, gay female living the South," Clark says. She's hopeful the Equality Act will become law and make life easier for others.

The Equality Act amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include LGBTQ people. It would make discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations illegal. The bill first passed the U.S. House in 2019 but died in the Republican-controlled Senate. It passed the House again on Feb. 25.

Advocates have higher hopes this time around now that Democrats control the Senate and President Biden has indicated he would sign the bill into law. Now, the question is whether enough Republicans would support the legislation so that the Equality Act could withstand a filibuster by those opposed to LGBTQ rights.

Clark and her wife of 11 years, Katie Killham, would like to have children. But they're discouraged by cases of LGBTQ couples being turned away from adoption and foster care agencies. They say the Equality Act could be life changing.

"I think I'd be willing to take on a foster care agency rather than just move on if I knew they legally had to treat us like everyone else," Killham says.

The act would not only ban federally funded agencies from discriminating against same-sex couples, it would also exclude religious beliefs as a rationale for discrimination. And that has conservative religious leaders worried.

"I think when you take religious freedom off the table, you're really kind of giving the Constitution the finger," says Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, an organization he says takes a biblical view on issues. Wilson believes the Equality Act violates his First Amendment rights.

"I want my religious freedom and my ability as a Christian to be respected just as much as a transgender person wants to be respected as choosing to be transgender," Wilson says.

Transgender people say it's not a choice. It's who they are. And many faith groups do support LGBTQ rights.

Claire Wofford, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, says the Equality Act could lead to a flurry of lawsuits in places where discrimination has been quietly tolerated.

"In South Carolina and other states like us, you are potentially on a collision course between equality and religious liberty," Wofford says.

Wofford believes the issue of religious liberty will likely be decided by judges. She points to precedents where courts exclude religion as a defense for race-based discrimination.

"In certain instances the government interest is so important that it outweighs the right to religious liberty," she says

If the Equality Act were to become law, one question courts would certainly be asked is whether the federal government has a compelling interest to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in ways that make some conservative people of faith uncomfortable.

Chase Glenn believes it does. He's the executive director of a Charleston based advocacy group Alliance for Full Acceptance. He's also a married, transgender man with children.

"I think there's an emotional toll that many LGBTQ people have experienced and carry with them," says Glenn.

He's keeping an eye on a slew of anti-LGBTQ measures in state legislatures across the nation. One in South Carolina would have removed people like him from a hate crimes bill.

"It's the worry of what if I am discriminated against? What if someone finds me out?"

Glenn says such attempts are proof his community needs cohesive, federal civil rights protection.

Copyright 2021 South Carolina Public Radio

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.