But some conservative evangelical Christian activists are upset that the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act contains language that specifically protects people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Mat Staver, the founder of the conservative litigation group Liberty Counsel, told the Christian news site OneNewsNow that his team is talking to House politicians to ensure that the act is stripped of this inclusive language.
“The old saying is once that camel gets the nose in the tent, you can’t stop them from coming the rest of the way in,” he said in an interview published Tuesday.
While emphasizing that he’s generally in favor of banning lynching, Staver claimed the bill is being used to further other proposed federal legislation that would explicitly protect queer Americans from discrimination at work and in other contexts.
“This is a way to slip it in under a so-called anti-lynching bill, and to then to sort of circle the wagon and then go for the juggler [sic] at some time in the future,” he said.
Liberty Counsel has spent years advocating against LGBTQ rights, prioritizing the religious liberty of conservative Christians over the civil rights of queer Americans. The organization represented Kim Davis, the now-former Kentucky county clerk who was jailed in 2015 after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Staver, who served as her lawyer, painted her as an evangelical Christian heroine, comparing her at one point to Jewish people who were persecuted by the Nazis.
On its surface, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act isn’t about queer rights. The bill addresses the crime of lynching ― extrajudicial executions carried out by a mob. According to the NAACP, lynching was used after the Civil War to resolve “some of the anger that whites had in relation to the free blacks.” At least 4,742 people, predominantly African-Americans, were reportedly lynched in America from 1882 to 1968.
As of now, the Senate bill defines lynching as two or more people “willfully caus[ing] bodily injury” because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Staver told OneNewsNow that if passed, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act would be the first federal law to mention gender identity and sexual orientation.
Jenny Pizer, the law and policy director for the advocacy organization Lambda Legal, refuted that idea. She pointed to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed in 2009 and covered crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Violence Against Women Act, which expired in December amid the partial government shutdown, also explicitly mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pizer said LGBTQ Americans still urgently need comprehensive and explicit federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only a minority of states have laws that specifically protect queer people.
Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and other progressive organizations have been pushing for the passage of the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against queer people in employment, housing, education and other areas of their lives.
“Because there continues to be confusion and debate about whether LGBTQ people already are legally equal — and whether or not we should be equal — we need the law to be inclusive and crystal clear,” Pizer told HuffPost in an email.
In response to backlash it received for Staver’s position on the anti-lynching bill, Liberty Counsel released a statement Thursday claiming that what he actually meant in the OneNewsNow interview was that including a list of protected categories in the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act would limit the law’s application.
“Lynching should be prohibited no matter the person’s reason for committing this violent crime,” Staver said in the statement.
The organization also said it has received death threats over the issue.
In a YouTube video defending the organization, Jonathan Alexandre, Liberty Counsel’s public policy director, said that some politicians and media organizations are using lynching’s “horrible history” to “push unrelated political agendas.” He confirmed that Liberty Counsel is questioning members of Congress about the “created list of protected categories.”
“The historical victims of lynching should not, as I do not, tolerate the hijacking of this issue by political agenda,” he said.
Liberty Counsel has not responded to a request for comment on why it believes LGBTQ Americans should not be treated as a protected class.
Pizer said she believes Liberty Counsel has repeatedly used an “ends-justify-the-means approach” to furthering its goals.
“With the grossly disproportionate rates of hate crimes against LGBTQ people, and the horrifying rate of murders of transgender women of color in particular, a demand to strip [sexual orientation and gender identity] out of an anti-lynching bill is truly dumbfounding, and beyond comprehension,” she said. “That it would be done by someone claiming to be motivated by Christian teachings just shows how deeply perverse and inhumane that anti-LGBT advocacy can become.”