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What a proposed US bill on religious liberty would and would not protect

Banner capitol at sunset credit vgm8383 via flickr cc by nc 20 cna 3

The US Capitol building. Credit: vgm8383 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

With same-sex marriage now legal throughout the United States, some members of Congress are trying to protect the religious rights of those who disagree with marriage's new definition – but their efforts may be limited. The First Amendment Defense Act, introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would prohibit “discriminatory action” by the federal government against those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman or who believe sex outside of marriage is wrong. “No group should lose its tax-exempt status because of its views on marriage,” stated Labrador. “Religious non-profits fulfill a vital humanitarian role in our nation, and they must remain free to staff and operate according to the same religious tenets that motivate their compassion for their communities,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) said at a July 16 press conference on Capitol Hill on the bill. Hartzler co-chairs the House Values Action Team. The prevailing concern with the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage licenses nationwide is that those opposing the law of the land might see their federal benefits cut as a result. The bill intends to protect the tax-exempt status of such organizations, along with other federal benefits such as contracts with religious non-profits and businesses. Those could not be terminated simply because of an entity’s religious beliefs on marriage. For example, charities such as The Salvation Army or Samaritan’s Purse could not lose federal funding simply because of their religious beliefs on marriage, members of Congress explained. Two bishops who publicly supported the act – Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco – called it a “federal non-discrimination act.” However, while the bill is hailed as an important measure for religious freedom, it does  its limits. It would not protect any entity against the federal birth control mandate, since it only protects religious beliefs on marriage and on sex outside of marriage. Thus even religious houses like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have opposed the mandate in court and lost, would not be protected by the law. “This would not apply to them at all,” Lee acknowledged. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court recently ruled that the sisters must obey the federal mandate that their insurance plans for employees cover contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilizations. The sisters had refused, saying that doing so would violate their religious beliefs. More than 300 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits claiming the mandate – including later modifications made to “accommodate” the religious beliefs of certain non-profits and businesses – violates their religious beliefs. The bill would also not apply to another prominent religious liberty case, in which an Oregon bakery was sued by a same-sex couple because it refused for religious reasons to serve their wedding. The state fined the bakery $135,000 for emotional damages inflicted on the couple in the case. In cases like that one, “you’re dealing with discrimination occurring between private parties,” Lee said, and not between a business and the federal government. Thus FADA would not apply to the case. Neither would the bill protect anyone against action from state and local governments. For example, the Christian couple who run a for-profit wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, would not be protected by the bill in their fight against a city ordinance mandating that they conduct same-sex weddings. In Washington, D.C., religious schools and organizations are already facing a law forcing them to violate their religious beliefs. The Human Rights Amendment Act would force religious schools in the district to recognize LGBT student groups and supporters of same-sex marriage, and allow them use of theier facilities. Thus the bill would not protect the schools against D.C. government specifically; but it is created to guard against similar actions taken by the federal government. To make the case for the bill, supporters cited comments by the solicitor general acknowledging that the tax-exempt status of some colleges could be ended if same-sex marriage became legal and they still opposed it. “It’s certainly going to be an issue,” soliciter general Donald Verrilli said of maintaining the tax-exempt status of colleges who opposed legal same-sex marriage.

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