June 12, 2019 at 1:49 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Former Log Cabin leader lobbies against Equality Act

Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelois lobbying against the Equality Act on Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As much of Washington was preparing to celebrate Pride last week, a gay activist who formerly headed Log Cabin Republicans took it upon himself to lobby Senate Republicans on legislation seeking to ban anti-LGBT discrimination known as the Equality Act.

But he was lobbying against passage of the bill, not for it.

Gregory Angelo, a gay conservative who has advocated for LGBT rights but has also praised President Trump, said in an interview with the Blade the Equality Act isn’t the right vehicle to achieve long-sought LGBT non-discrimination protections under federal law.

“The Equality Act includes no reasonable exemptions for religious liberty and actually moves the goalposts so far to the left that it runs counter to the types of legislation that gay Republicans have sought for decades, particularly the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Angelo said.

As it was introduced in Congress and recently approved by the U.S. House under a new Democratic majority, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to clarify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is a form of sex discrimination.

As such, the Equality Act would institute the same kind of religious exemption for anti-LGBT discrimination as currently is in place for discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex and national origin. A pastor wouldn’t be penalized for declining to perform a same-sex wedding, nor would churches be penalized as a public accommodation for refusing to admit LGBT parishioners. 

But it does mean religious affiliated schools would face penalties for refusing to admit LGBT students or terminating the employment of a teacher who entered into a same-sex wedding; Catholic adoption agencies could see their access to federal funds cut for denying child placement into LGBT homes; and Catholic hospitals would be required to perform gender reassignment surgery if they offer similar procedures.

Further, the Equality Act would expand the definition of public accommodations under the Civil Rights Act to include retail stores, services such as banks and legal services, and transportation services. Under the Equality Act, Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop, would face penalties under federal law for his refusal to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

On top of all that, the Equality Act would clarify the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law intended to protect religious minorities, wouldn’t be an excuse to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination.

Angelo said a few years ago during his time at Log Cabin Republicans, former Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who was considered a pro-LGBT Republican, met with the organization to discuss concerns about the narrow religious exemption in the Equality Act and “the many reasons why…the legislation was problematic.” Angelo said he and the board agreed with Dent’s conclusion.

During Angelo’s tenure at Log Cabin Republicans, the organization opposed the Equality Act, calling it a cudgel to beat up vulnerable Republicans instead of a genuine means of advancing LGBT rights. 

Republicans, Log Cabin said, were damned if they supported the bill and damned if they didn’t. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group pointed out, criticized former Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois when he became one of the few Republicans to co-sponsor the bill.

But there was no real prospect of the Equality Act advancing with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress. Things have changed now with Democrats in control of the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made passage of the bill a personal goal and the chamber approved the legislation in May just before Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

With the Equality Act having momentum, Angelo said he perceived no structured opposition from gay conservatives any longer and took it upon himself to take a stand. The first order of businesses was writing an op-ed for the Washington Examiner — a piece he echoed when speaking with the Blade. 

“Throughout my entire career, advocating for LGBT equality, especially during the time that I was advocating among Republicans in the New York State Senate to pass marriage equality in the run up to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision in 2013, and in the run up to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015, my message and the message of gay conservative advocates around the country was the same: Passage of marriage equality would be no threat to you, your family, not your faith,” Angelo said. “And what the Equality Act does is make liars out of the lot of us.”

Writing this Washington Examiner piece at a time when 30 states have either no or incomplete protections against LGBT discrimination, Angelo said he was resoundingly criticized, even hectored. One social media troll, Angelo said, told him he should kill himself.

But Angelo also said he received some positive response. Subsequently, Angelo took to social media to gather signatures of other gay conservatives for a letter in opposition to the legislation. The list of more than 100 people includes Chad Felix Greene, a writer for the Federalist, former GOProud board chair Chris Barron, and David Lampo, a gay Republican who supported President Trump in the 2016 election.

Angelo then delivered the missive on Friday to a legislative aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The two, Angelo said, had a “very encouraging conversation” in McConnell’s Capitol Hill office.

“At this juncture, I’m not going to talk about personal conversations that I’ve had with Senate leadership, but I will share that I most definitely did not leave that meeting disappointed,” Angelo said.

McConnell’s office didn’t respond to a request to confirm the meeting took place, nor if any commitments were made. A McConnell spokesperson previously said the Equality Act isn’t on the legislative agenda for the Republican-controlled Senate.

Angelo said he was aware he was arguing against LGBT rights during Pride month, a time when the LGBT community seeks to draw attention to the continued absence of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, but that did “not at all” give him pause.

“It’s something that I’m most definitely aware of, but the Equality Act passed when it passed and went to the Senate when it did, and I wanted to make sure that I respond immediately, and others clearly agreed that that was the right course of action,” Angelo said.

Angelo isn’t the only LGBT person who spoke against the Equality Act. Julia Beck, a lesbian and former member of the Baltimore LGBTQ Commission’s Law & Policy Committee, appeared at a forum hosted by the anti-LGBT Heritage Foundation to speak out against the transgender protections in the Equality Act and was an opposition witness to the legislation during a congressional hearing on the bill. 

As such, many observers speculate the Heritage Foundation is financially backing Beck as well as other members of the LGBT community who have expressed opposition to the LGBT rights measure.

Angelo, however, said he didn’t receive compensation from the Heritage Foundation, nor anyone else, and insisted he was lobbying McConnell on his own as a private citizen.

“I’m not getting paid a dime to do any of this,” Angelo said. “This is just an issue that I have very strong personal beliefs about. It’s clearly an issue that other gay conservatives have very strong personal beliefs about and I’m happy to carry the mantle for it.”

(UPDATE: Greg Scott, a Heritage spokesperson, said via email after publication of this article speculation the Heritage Foundation is financially backing LGBT people to speak out against the Equality Act is “false.” Beck participated in a Heritage panel discussion earlier this year, but Scott said Heritage is “‘financially backing’ her like we are ‘financially backing’ the hundreds of other speakers Heritage hosts every year, which is to say at the ‘zero dollar level.'”)

Meanwhile, LGBT rights advocates are pushing the Equality Act as the measure to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in the United States. Following the successful House vote, they’re trying to hold a test vote in the Senate despite Republican control of the chamber.

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, noted in response to Angelo’s initiative the widespread public support for LGBT non-discrimination protections.

“Seven in 10 Americans, including majorities of every political party, support the Equality Act, as well as members of Congress from both parties, more than 200 major business and leading civil rights organizations,” Stacy said. “Anyone opposing the Equality Act is clearly taking a stand against the mainstream of America and on the wrong side of history.”

Log Cabin Republicans appears to have relented on the Equality Act since Angelo left the organization. Upon passage of the measure in the House, the organization praised the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats in favor of the bill.

Jerri Ann Henry, current executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, referred to her previous statement on the Equality Act when asked whether the organization supports Angelo’s efforts.

“We are extremely supportive of federal legislation on equality and very thankful for the three Republican members who co-sponsored the House legislation as well as the additional five who voted for it,” Henry said. “We do have some concerns with regard to religious liberty protections and believe there are some improvements that should be made.”

The Equality Act also has one Republican co-sponsor in the Senate: Susan Collins (R-Maine), who’s known as being the most LGBT supportive Republican (despite having voted for the confirmation of U.S. Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh).

Angelo said he wouldn’t criticize Collins for supporting the measure, noting Collins is a Republican, but has a reputation for “marching to the beat of her own drum.” Both Angelo and Collins were recognized for their work in May at the Women’s National Republican Club in New York City.

“It doesn’t come as a surprise to you or anyone that Susan Collins is definitely a unique Republican in the United States Senate,” Angelo said.
Even if these LGBT rights supporters achieve a successful vote on the Equality Act in the Senate through some miraculous means, President Trump — who indicated opposition to the Equality Act via a senior administration official to the Blade — would likely veto the measure.
 
As others are pushing for the Equality Act, Angelo said if he had his way civil rights law against LGBT discrimination would resemble “in very much the same way” the 2013 agreement reached for ENDA, which had a wider religious exemption and during a U.S Senate vote in 2013 garnered support from 10 Republicans in addition to a united Democratic caucus.

“The legislation would include protections for LGBT individuals, but also exemptions for churches, religiously affiliated non-profit organizations and religiously affiliated member organizations,” Angelo said. “That’s it.”
 
Although LGBT rights supporters supported that version of ENDA in 2013, they dropped that support after the nature of the religious exemption became more well known and it became clear the bill would never become law with Republicans in control of the House.

Although Angelo said he believes an ENDA-like compromise measure is forthcoming in Congress, he wouldn’t say more when pressed for details or the lawmakers who would sponsor such legislation. Angelo has hinted on social media about the creation of a new group called Infinite America, but said it’s a non-profit unrelated to the Equality Act.

Angelo also scoffed at the notion LGBT rights supporters have chosen the Equality Act as their vehicle and said hand-wringing about the scope of the religious freedom would ultimately result in no LGBT protections whatsoever.

“The Equality Act has no chance of passing the United States Senate,” Angelo said. “It will be vetoed by President Trump in the very slim chance that it ever does. Who’s being more reasonable here? The guy with the pragmatic approach to passing LGBT legislation that can actually pass and get the president’s signature, or pushing the Equality Act, a pie in the sky bill?”

Yet another branch of government will weigh in on the issue: The U.S. Supreme Court. Justices granted a writ of certiorari to hear cases on whether sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination amount to sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

A decision, expected by June 2020, could be a shortcut to LGBT non-discrimination, but with a conservative majority on the court many observers are skeptical justices will reach that conclusion.

Angelo, however, said he doesn’t believe federal law as currently constructed against sex discrimination affords LGBT protections.

“If that was the case, then that would mean that the last 11 years I spent as a volunteer and a lobbyist for advocating for LGBT civil rights was a total waste of time because the entire time that I was doing that, federal law already said it was so,” Angelo said.

In the meantime, Angelo said he continues to plan for a compromise proposal that he says will be a middle way forward.

“The campaign to stop the Equality Act in its tracks also includes proposing legislation that does meet the criteria that I just laid out, and again, seeing no individuals or organizations promoting legislation of this kind, it’s something I’ve taken it upon myself to work on,” Angelo said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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