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Catholic Bishops Endorse 'License to Discriminate' Legislation

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed support for the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow discrimination against LGBT people and more.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed the anti-LGBT "license to discriminate" legislation known as the First Amendment Defense Act.

After an earlier version of the act failed to advance in the previous session of Congress, a new version was introduced March 8 by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and several fellow Republicans. 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."

Unlike the earlier version, the new version of the bill excludes federal employees, for-profit businesses with federal contracts, and publicly traded companies, but it would still open the door to discrimination by closely held companies, nonprofits, and others in the name of religion. It would endanger not only LGBT people but unmarried opposite-sex couples, single parents, and more.

But to the bishops' conference, it's "a modest and important measure that protects the rights of faith-based organizations and people of all faiths and of no faith who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman," according to a press release from the group.

"For example, in a pluralistic society, faith-based charitable agencies and schools should not be excluded from participation in public life by loss of licenses, accreditation, or tax-exempt status because they hold reasonable views on marriage that differ from the federal government's view," the release continues.

A letter sent by the bishops' conference to Lee last week voices "strong support" for the measure and thanks him for introducing it. "Persons who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman are increasingly having their religious freedoms jeopardized and even forfeited," states the letter, signed by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who chairs the conference's Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

But LGBT and other civil rights groups have pointed out that the legislation would jeopardize the freedom of many people. Examples of discrimination that would be allowed under the act, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 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.

"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," HRC government affairs director David Stacy said when the latest version was introduced.

Added Ian Thompson, a legislative representative with the American Civil Liberties Union: "This bill opens the door to a wide range of taxpayer-funded discrimination. It would let private companies and nonprofit government contractors -- which includes a significant portion of social services providers -- refuse to provide a service or benefit to people because they do not fit their definition of family, from same-sex married couples and their children, a single parent and their child, or an unmarried couple who are living together. Whatever the sponsors of this shameful legislation may say, this is a blatant example of using religion as a justification to discriminate, and the ACLU will fight to make sure it never becomes law."

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