Tia Clark, who lives in Charleston, teaches tourists the South Carolina coast tradition of catching blue crabs. She and her wife say the Equal Opportunities Act will make it easier for them to adopt a child. Matt LeGault hide caption
A Charleston-born Tia Clark learned to endure discrimination in conservative South Carolina, one of around two dozen states with little or no laws to protect LGBTQ people.
The 41-year-old fled a decade-long career in the food and beverage industry, partly due to customer discrimination.
“I don’t want to be in this fight and I’ve fought for myself all my life,” says Clark.
So she went into business for herself, teaching tourists a coastal tradition: how to catch blue crabs. She never thought she could be her own boss. But she did it.
“It came from my tough skin of being a black, gay woman who lives in the south,” says Clark. She hopes the Equal Opportunities Act will become law and make life easier for others.
The Equal Opportunities Act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBTQ people. This would make discrimination in housing, employment and public housing illegal. The bill was first passed in the U.S. House in 2019 but died in the Republican-controlled Senate. It happened again the house on February 25th.
Proponents have higher hopes this time around, as Democrats control the Senate and President Biden has announced that he will sign the bill. The question now is whether enough Republicans would support the legislation for the equality bill to resist a filibuster of those who oppose LGBTQ rights.
Clark and her 11-year-old wife, Katie Killham, want to have children. However, they are discouraged by cases of LGBTQ couples being turned away from adoption and care facilities. They say the equality law could be life changing.
“I think I would be willing to take on a care agency instead of just moving on when I knew they had to legally treat us like everyone else,” says Killham.
The law would not only exclude federally funded organizations from discriminating against same-sex couples, it would also exclude religious beliefs as grounds for discrimination. And that is what worried conservative religious leaders.
“I think if you take religious freedom off the table, you are really shutting your finger on the constitution,” said Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, an organization he believes takes a biblical view of issues. Wilson believes the Equality Act violates his First Amendment rights.
“I want my freedom of religion and my ability to be a Christian to be respected as much as a transgender person would like to be respected, like choosing to be transgender,” says Wilson.
Transgender people say it’s not a choice. It is who you are. And many faith groups support LGBTQ rights.
Claire Wofford, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, says the Equality Act could lead to a spate of lawsuits in places where discrimination has been tacitly tolerated.
“In South Carolina and other states like us, you may find yourself on a collision course between equality and religious freedom,” says Wofford.
Wofford believes the issue of religious freedom is likely to be decided by the judges. She points to precedents where courts exclude religion as a defense against racial discrimination.
“In certain cases, government interests are so important that they outweigh the right to religious freedom,” she says
If Equal Opportunities Act were to become law, a question would surely be asked of whether the federal government has an overriding interest in protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in a way that makes some conservative believers uncomfortable.
Chase Glenn thinks so. He is the managing director of a Charleston-based advocacy group, Alliance for Full Acceptance. He is also a married transgender man with children.
“I think there is an emotional toll that a lot of LGBTQ people have experienced and carried around with them,” says Glenn.
He observes a number of actions against LGBTQ in state legislatures across the country. One in South Carolina would have stripped people like him from a hate crime law.
“It’s the concern, what if I am discriminated against? What if someone finds out about me?”
Such attempts are evidence that his community needs coherent federal civil rights protection, according to Glenn.