Stella Maxwell
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Anti-LGBT First Amendment Defense Act Reintroduced in Senate

Senator Mike Lee

Republican senators have reintroduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which if it becomes law will give the federal government’s blessing to discrimination against LGBT people and others in the name of religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and 21 GOP colleagues today introduced a new version of the bill, The Hill reports. An earlier version was introduced in both the House and Senate in 2015 but never advanced out of committee.

Language in the bill states that its purpose is “to ensure that the Federal Government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person speaks, or acts, in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as a union of one man and one woman, or two individuals as recognized under Federal law, or that sexual relations outside marriage are improper.”

The bill would prevent alteration of federal tax treatment, denial of or reduction in grants or contracts, denial of access to federal property or institutions, and a host of other actions against individuals and entities that refuse service based on these views. The bill “reframes the original wording to exclude publicly traded for-profit companies, federal employees and contractors, and health care facilities from the list of protected entities,” notes HuffPost, but does give its OK to discrimination by privately held for-profit companies. And the contractors’ exclusion extends only to “for-profit contractors acting within the scope of their contract,” according to the bill itself, so apparently nonprofits could discriminate without penalty. The exclusions, however, could improve the legislation’s chance of passage.

“What an individual or organization believes about the traditional definition of marriage is not — and should never be — a part of the government’s decision-making process when distributing licenses, accreditations, or grants,” Lee said in a statement posted on his website. “And the First Amendment Defense Act simply ensures that this will always be true in America — that federal bureaucrats will never have the authority to require those who believe in the traditional definition of marriage to choose between their living in accordance with those beliefs and maintaining their occupation or their tax status.”

LGBT and other civil rights groups quickly condemned the bill as a license to discriminate. “The First Amendment Defense Act is harmful legislation that would legalize state-sanctioned discrimination and undermine key civil rights protections for LGBTQ people,” said David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s government affairs director, in a press release. “Supporters of this legislation are using religious liberty as a sword to hurt LGBTQ families rather than staying true to our long tradition of it serving as a shield to protect religious expression from government overreach.”

Examples of discrimination that would be allowed under the act, according to HRC, include denial of federally mandated family leave to care for a same-sex spouse, or turning away people in same-sex marriages from homeless shelters or domestic violence shelters that receive federal funding.

The American Civil Liberties Union likewise denounced the measure. “Families targeted by this bill could include same-sex married couples and their children, a single mother and her child, or an unmarried couple who are living together,” the ACLU tweeted.

In another tweet, ACLU officials said, “Unlike former versions, this new legislation doesn’t specifically designate LGBT families as the sole target of the exemption. Ironically, doing so only opens the door to taxpayer-funded discrimination against even more people. We will fight to make sure it never becomes law.”

When previous versions of the bill were considered, objections from Democrats and the likelihood of a veto by then-President Barack Obama kept them from advancing, The Hill notes. However, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump expressed support for such legislation, although he has yet to comment on the new bill. But his administration has already undone many Obama-era protections for LGBT people.

Among other things, last fall the Justice Department issued “religious freedom” guidelines that amount to a license to discriminate, and this year the Department of Health and Human Services created a new division aimed at assisting health care workers who refuse to serve certain patients or participate in certain procedures, even marginally, because of their religious beliefs.

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