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Rabbi Jared Saks leads Congregation Bet Ha’am in Portland.
Ten years ago, my husband and I were deciding where to spend the next chapter of our lives together. As a rabbi, I looked for a new congregation to serve. Painfully, I had to ignore opportunities in over half of the United States — in any state that lacked nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. It was the only way to ensure that my family and I would be treated equally under the law.
Jewish tradition teaches us that everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We are enjoined to treat each other with dignity. Nobody should live in fear of discrimination or experience discrimination because of who they are. Yet most states lack laws protecting members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. Federal civil rights laws also fail to protect people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It is time for Congress to pass the Equality Act.
The Equality Act would expand federal civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people. The act would make it illegal to discriminate against members of this community in employment, housing, credit and federally funded programs. It would also ensure non-discrimination in access to public places and spaces, like restaurants. The Equality Act expands these protections not only for the LGBTQ community, but for other marginalized groups such as religious minorities, women, immigrants, and people of color.
Today, LGBTQ Americans can be evicted, thrown out of restaurants, and denied loans because of who we are and who we love. More than one in three LGBTQ Americans — including nearly two-thirds of transgender individuals — have experienced some form of discrimination in the last year, according to a national survey fielded by the Center for American Progress. More than half of LGBTQ Americans live in states that allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Moreover, states have introduced dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills this year alone, enacting twenty-two of them already. Crossing state lines should not mean losing legal protections that are afforded to other groups.
This situation is an affront to my Jewish values. Judaism has celebrated a diverse spectrum of sex and gender identities for centuries. Many of our texts proudly affirm the existence of transgender, intersex and genderfluid individuals. Beyond this recognition of diversity, we are commanded not to stand idly by when others are suffering. As a Jew, I feel obligated to stand up against discrimination today, for my community and all the other communities that the Equality Act will protect.
The House of Representatives has already passed the Equality Act. Now, the Senate must act. As a Mainer, I call on Sen. Susan Collins to join with Sen. Angus King in cosponsoring this bill. Collins has already worked to abolish discrimination against LGBTQ citizens during federal jury selection. It is my sincere hope that she will support LGBTQ Americans again by cosponsoring the Equality Act and urging her colleagues to do the same.
Some detractors argue that the Equality Act limits religious liberty. Nothing could be further from the truth. In some states today, it is legal to throw someone out of a retail store for wearing a yarmulke, cross necklace or hijab. The Equality Act will protect people of faith from this sort of discrimination. That is part of why over 120 faith-based organizations have formally endorsed this bill, including the Union for Reform Judaism, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, and Muslim Advocates. In March, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing on the Equality Act. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), held up a petition from more than 17,000 people of faith in support of the Equality Act.
A majority of Americans support protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. Substantial majorities in every major religious group, from Jews to evangelicals to Catholics to the religiously unaffiliated, support this measure as well. It is time for our laws to reflect what so many of us already believe: that LGBTQ Americans, like all people, are made in the divine image and deserve to be treated with dignity.
The act is simply about treating everyone as we would want to be treated, a value we all share. I’m proud that my family has made a home in our state. I’ll be even more proud when Collins becomes a co-sponsor of this historic legislation.