LIVE: House Debates Federal 'Right to Discriminate' on Anniversary of Orlando

Barney Frank

Exactly one month after a mass shooting that targeted LGBT and Latino people left 49 dead, Republicans in the House are holding a hearing on whether to let American business owners and government contractors to refuse service to LGBT people.

The bill being considered in testimony today before the Republican-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform would allow businesses and individuals to refuse service if they cited a sincerely held religious belief or "moral conviction."

Formally known as the First Amendment Defense Act, H.R. 2802 would create a national "religious discrimination" law, allowing businesses and government workers to refuse goods and services to customers who offend their religious sensibilities. Of course, LGBT people would be a natural target of the act, but the bill is also explicit in singling out gay and bisexual people. It specifically allows people with a "religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage" to turn away same-sex spouses or those hoping to wed. The bill would make it impossible for aggrieved LGBT people to petition the federal government when they experience such discrimination.

Though the bill's authors — antigay Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho and GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah — refer to the bill as a "defense" of the First Amendment, the name is misleading. As ThinkProgress points out, the First Amendment does not allow religious people to arbitrarily discriminate against those they don't like, at least according to the Supreme Court. When right-wing Christians attempted to turn away mixed-race couples from their businesses, the high court intervened by ruling that religious beliefs don't trump the rights of others.

"The abuse of religious exemptions as a tactic for undermining civil rights advances is a classic pattern of civil rights progress in America,” Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry and a key architect of the legal and cultural strategy that won marriage equality, recently told The Advocate. “In the '50s and the '60s and the '70s and the '80s, whether it was with racial minorities or women or other steps forward — including now gay and transgender people — when the opponents of civil rights progress fail to stop an advance, they then try to circumvent it.”

Today's hearing, which began at 10 a.m. Eastern, features a six-person panel answering questions from lawmakers about the supposed need for the bill. Three people spoke in opposition to the bill, including former Rep. Barney Frank, Jim Obergefell, who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that brought marriage equality to all 50 states, and Katherine Franke, a law professor and director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.

Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the committee, opened today’s hearing by calling for measured rhetoric on the bill he called “important.” 

“I recognize the sensitive nature of this, the emotion that’s attached to it,” Chaffetz said. “But I hope that today doesn’t divide into too much of a politically charged discussion about what divides us.” 

“FADA attempts to ensure that no one is discriminated against based on how they view marriage,” added Chaffetz, an original co-sponsor of the legislation.  

During his opening statement, lead House sponsor Rep. Labrador portrayed FADA as the natural next step in America's long history of religious tolerance. 

“American tolerance has been a vital source of strength for our people and for our nation,” he said. Labrador went on to lament that over the past several years, there has been a shift in what he called the fundamental respect for religious viewpoints, “particularly where an individual’s religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman is concerned.”

“This growing intolerance has spawned a climate of intimidation in the public sphere,” he continued. “No American should be threatened or intimidated because of their belief in traditional marriage.”

“It has never been our intention to give anyone a so-called license to discriminate,” Labrador said. “In fact, Senator Lee and I have spent countless hours listening to both supporters and opponents of the bill, in order to draft the legislation in a way that religious liberty is protected, without taking anything away from anyone.”

During his opening statement, Sen. Lee, the Utah Republican who is carrying FADA in the Senate, asked panelists and fellow lawmakers to “commit to treating one another with kindness, respect, and dignity.” He said that reasonable people “of good faith” can arrive at widely divergent views on the issue of same-sex marriage, but also rejected opposition claims that the bill creates a carve-out for certain individuals, groups, and businesses to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell.

“The most important feature of this legislation… is its exceptionally narrow scope,” Lee stated. 

“If enacted, the bill would do one thing only,” he claimed. “It would prevent the federal government from discriminating against particular disfavored religious beliefs. … It is a targeted response to particular legal developments that have taken place in the last year or so.”

Lee rejected the claim that his bill creates a “license to discriminate,” saying that instead, FADA “simply reaffirms all Americans’s God-given, Constitutionally protected right to live according to their religious or moral convictions without fear of punishment by the government.”

There were three panelists who spoke in favor of the bill, including former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired from his position after promoting to his employees a book he wrote that equated homosexuality with bestiality. Although Cochran's termination would not have been prevented if FADA were in force, his testimony provided an emotional anchor for those in favor of the bill. Also providing empassioned testimony in support of the bill was Kristin Waggoner, an attorney with the powerhouse anti-LGBT legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. 

“There’s no question that there is government hostility toward people who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Waggoner said during today’s hearing. “What we’re seeing at the state, and at the federal level, is that those who have the politically unpopular view [that marriage is between one man and one woman], are being silenced, banished and punished.”

The final pro-FADA panelist was Matthew J. Franck, a leader at the with right-wing Witherspoon Institute, who serves as the Institute’s director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution. 

Before the hearing took a recess around 12:30 p.m. Eastern, several lawmakers delivered powerful rebukes of the bill itself, as well as the timing of today's hearing. 

“This is the month-long anniversary of the extreme slaughter of gay men and women,” noted New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat. “And I personally find it shameful that we are holding this hearing… on the anniversary of this event.”

California Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat and staunch LGBT ally, reminded his colleagues that when they took the oath of office, they swore an oath "to the Constitution, not the Bible." He went on to denounce what he called the "crazy language" of the bill, which he said was dangerously broad. 

New Jersey Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman’s voice shook as she blasted the legislation as “abhorrent.” 

“I find it offensive that any day of the year, that this proposal is being considered,” she said. “That we are considering this one month after what happened in Orlando, Florida, is just another element of disrespect and disregard.”

Shortly after members returned from a brief recess, actingcommittee chairman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, asked each of the legal scholars on the panel for their commitment to work with the House Committee to ensure “that all rights are protected.” Waggoner, Franck, and Franke all agreed. 

Watch the first segment of the hearing, until the recess, below. 

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