Federal 'License to Discriminate' Bill Gains Support — and Opposition

Federal 'License to Discriminate' Bill Gains Support — and Opposition

After uproar over so-called license to discriminate bills in several states, congressional Republicans are getting both support and condemnation for their effort to enact a national version.

The House version of the First Amendment Defense Act, which would protect individuals and institutions from government penalties for acting “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” against same-sex marriage, is now up to 134 cosponsors, including 17 who came on just this week, MSNBC reports. The Senate version has 34 cosponsors, which amounts to nearly two-thirds of Republican members. Both were introduced in June, the House version by Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, the Senate version by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, both Republicans.

The penalties the legislation refers to include denial of tax exemptions, federal contracts, and licenses to churches and religiously affiliated nonprofits, such as schools, hospitals, and social service agencies — but also for-profit businesses that cite such a belief. Its supporters contend it merely protects religious freedom, but opponents say its scope is far too broad.

The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus today issued a statement denouncing the legislation. “This bill is a thinly veiled attempt to permit discrimination against LGBT families,” said executive director Roddy Flynn. “The bill attacks a problem that does not exist. Existing laws already protect clergy from being forced to perform same-sex weddings and a church’s tax-exempt status if the church refuses to perform a same-sex wedding.”

But, he said, it “gives a government blessing to businesses and nonprofits to deny services to LGBT families.” If it becomes law, employers would be able to refuse family leave and deny survivor benefits to same-sex spouses, hospitals could deny them visitation rights, and homeless shelters that receive federal funding could turn away LGBT families, he noted.

While the legislation doesn’t have a great chance of becoming law — even if it passed the House and Senate, President Obama would undoubtedly veto it — congressional conservatives apparently see it as a way to show voters they’re standing up against marriage equality.

“I would hope it gets a vote,” Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, told The Hill. “Members going home for August town halls would like to have had an opportunity to stake out their position on this. … There’s clearly quite a head of steam.”

But House Speaker John Boehner, who hasn’t taken a position on the legislation, may be reluctant to call a vote, partly because Rep. Labrador is unpopular with his colleagues, The Hill reports. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is in charge of scheduling votes, hasn’t set a date to consider the act.

Still, the number and prominence of cosponsors may force these Republican leaders to act, MSNBC notes. The cosponsors of the Senate version include three of the four Republican senators seeking their party’s presidential nomination: Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio. The fourth, Rand Paul, may still sign on. All the cosponsors in both chambers are Republicans, with the exception of Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois.

“When it’s [Texas Rep.] Louie Gohmert demanding a vote on some far-right measure, House Republican leaders find it easy to just roll their eyes and focus attention elsewhere,” writes MSNBC blogger Steve Benen. “But when 124 representatives and 34 senators — including several GOP presidential candidates — demand a vote on some far-right measure, the Speaker’s office finds it far more difficult to laugh it off.”