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Anti-LGBTQ coalition targets Equality Act in the name of America's children

The Promise to America’s Children coalition includes right-wing groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Policy Alliance.

A new initiative backed by a coalition of right-wing organizations is courting lawmakers and parents in an effort to stop the passage of the Equality Act — a federal LGBTQ rights bill — and promote policies targeting transgender Americans at the federal and state levels.

Backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Policy Alliance, Heritage Foundation and other national and local groups, the Promise to America’s Children coalition says it is fighting “a culture – and sadly, a government – around us seek to sexualize our children for the sake of a political agenda.”

"It’s no surprise that the ugly wave of state attacks on trans kids traces back to a few, very familiar national anti-LGBTQ groups."

Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD President and CEO

As part of this effort, policymakers and parents are asked to sign pledges protecting children’s “minds,” “bodies” and “relationships with their parents.” Elected officials can even sign up on the coalition website to receive model legislation on the policies it promotes.

“Every child deserves an education that is suited for their specific needs and development as guided by their parents, and one that is free from graphic sexual curriculum or content, the promotion of abortion, and politicized ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity,” the policymaker pledge reads.

On its website, the Promise to America’s Children coalition says anyone who signs the pledge is not signaling support or opposition to legislation, “with the exception of the federal Equality Act, which clearly violates all principles of this Promise.”

The Equality Act is federal legislation that seeks to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces, public funding and jury service. The House passed the recently reintroduced legislation Thursday, but it will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate, where a 60-vote threshold is required to bypass a filibuster.

Civil rights groups say this new conservative coalition is an attempt to roll back the rights of LGBTQ Americans, particularly the transgender community, and stall passage of comprehensive nondiscrimination laws on the federal and state levels.

“The same few sources have been responsible for peddling anti-LGBTQ legislation for many years, and this legislation is simply the latest iteration of their losing political fight against equality,” Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said of state bills associated with the organizations in the coalition.

“While extremist groups push copycat bills down to states, these state legislators should understand that their constituents — including a large majority of Republicansbelieve transgender people should be allowed to live freely and openly,” Oakley added. “The only thing these bills do is harm kids who are simply trying to navigate their adolescence.”

Emilie Kao, an attorney and the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, said the coalition’s efforts were accelerated by the reintroduction of the Equality Act.

“Regardless of whether one agrees with the idea that people can have gender identities at odds with their biological sex, bills that treat Americans as criminals if they don't agree with a government-imposed ideology about the treatment of gender dysphoria is a gross violation of our most basic freedoms of speech and conscience,” Kao told NBC News. “The Equality Act will turn disagreements over marriage and sexuality into discrimination by misusing civil rights law as a sword to coerce conformity rather than as a shield to prevent unjust discrimination.”

Kao declined to disclose what model legislation the coalition is offering on its website. Prior to the coalition's official launch this week, LGBTQ advocates said anti-transgender bills were introduced in 20 states in a coordinated assault by conservative groups. At least one of those conservative groups, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is part of this newly formed coalition.

Bethany Moreton, a history professor at Dartmouth College, said the guise of protecting children when promoting conservative ideology is not uncommon. She cited Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign in the late 1970s that worked to overturn gay nondiscrimination ordinances in Miami by referencing how such measures would harm local children. Over the past 20 years, the religious right has repeatedly lost political battles when it comes LGBTQ issues, so this new pledge is continuing in the "Save Our Children" vein in an effort to appeal to a broad base, according to Moreton.

“Their sort of arsenal of acceptable arguments have shrunk, and one of them is doubling down on child vulnerability,” Moreton said.

While the Promise to America’s Children coalition is new, groups within the coalition have already had success in assisting lawmakers with legislation intended to curtail transgender rights. One such example is Idaho's HB 500, a bill that bars trans women from participating in high school sports that was passed in 2020, which was written with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, according to Barbara Ehardt, the legislator who drafted it. A similar bill in Montana was drafted directly from HB 500, Laura Sankey Keip, a staff attorney in the Montana Legislature, confirmed.

The coalition, which launched Tuesday, already has 24 state representatives as signatories to the group’s pledge, three of whom have introduced legislation targeting transgender individuals. Ohio state Rep. Jena Powell and North Dakota state Rep. Ben Koppelman, both Republicans, have introduced bills that would restrict trans women from participating in high school sports, mirroring HB 500, and Kansas state Sen. Mike Thompson, also a Republican, has introduced a bill that would criminalize doctors providing gender-affirming health care to teenagers.

There are more than 45 pieces of anti-transgender legislation making their way through statehouses this year, according to a legislation tracker from Freedom for All Americans. That is more than the legislative session of 2016, which produced the largest volume of anti-trans bills in statehouses, according to civil rights groups.

"It’s no surprise that the ugly wave of state attacks on trans kids traces back to a few, very familiar national anti-LGBTQ groups,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said. “They have opposed LGBTQ equality for decades, fighting marriage equality and now targeting trans youth. Bills claiming to protect children or women’s rights do neither and put trans kids in further danger.”

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