Bill Takes Aim at Discrimination in the Name of Faith

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Three congressional Democrats have reintroduced a bill to amend the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to assure that it could not be used to justify discrimination.

U.S. Reps. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts and Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, today reintroduced the legislation, first put forth in 2017.

The act “would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights,” according to a press release from Kennedy’s office. It was originally introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision, which held that under RFRA, for-profit companies could deny employees insurance coverage for certain types of contraception, based on the employer’s religious objections. The legislation would assure access to such coverage and also address anti-LGBTQ discrimination -- for example, overturning the Trump administration’s recent waiver allowing faith-based child welfare agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and members of different religions, even if the agencies receive taxpayer funds.

“Specifically, the Do No Harm Act would limit the use of RFRA in cases involving discrimination, child labor and abuse, wages and collective bargaining, access to health care, public accommodations, and social services provided through government contract,” the release notes.

“We cannot be equal or free if our government grants select Americans a license to discriminate against their neighbors under the guise of religious freedom,” Kennedy said in the release. “By passing the Do No Harm Act, we can reestablish the sacred balance between religious liberty and the personal liberties of those who have too often had their civil rights bargained away. I’m proud to stand with Congressman Scott, Senator Harris, and civil rights activists from around the country as we continue on our march towards a more perfect union.”

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was originally passed in 1993 as a response to a Supreme Court case which undermined the rights of religious minorities. Unfortunately, in recent years, bad faith interpretations of RFRA has been used to deny health care coverage for employees, claim exemptions to civil rights law, and impede justice in child labor and abuse cases,” added Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “The Do No Harm Act would amend RFRA to clarify that no one can cite religious belief as grounds to undermine Civil Rights Act protections, limit access to health care, and refuse service to minority populations. This bill would restore the original intent of RFRA, and ensure that religious freedom is only used as a shield to protect individuals from discrimination, and not a sword to cut down the rights of others.”

“The freedom to worship is one of our nation’s most fundamental rights,” Harris said. “That First Amendment guarantee should never be used to undermine other Americans’ civil rights or subject them to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. I’m proud to reintroduce the Do No Harm Act in the Senate to more comprehensively protect the basic rights of every American.”

The legislation has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, Equality California, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, GLSEN, Lambda Legal, and numerous other civil rights groups as well as faith organizations.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American principle, but it isn't a license to harm or discriminate against others,” Equality California executive director Rick Zbur said in the release, adding that the Do No Harm Act will prevent religious freedom from being used in this fashion. The bill, said HRC government affairs director David Stacy, “will preserve the core protections of RFRA while clarifying it cannot be used to violate essential nondiscrimination protections, including for the LGBTQ community.”

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