What do you do when someone asks you to treat everybody equally? If you’re a kindergartner, you accept and graciously share your crayons. If you’re a Senate Republican, you throw a tantrum and create a legislative loophole.
This week, 11 Senate Republicans introduced a bill called the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit federal agencies from taking away the tax-exempt status of churches and religious groups in spite of any discriminatory practices they may employ. The bill seems tailored to fight the impending “threat” of marriage equality, according to bill author Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), but it opens the door to allowing any kind of discrimination — as long as that discrimination can be backed up by “religious beliefs.”
“What I would like to do is make sure that we go out of our way to protect churches from adverse action that could be taken against them as a result of their doctrinal views of the definition of marriage,” the Utah senator said.
The bill appears to be blatantly sidestepping the post-DOMA-repeal policy that requires federal recognition of legally married same-sex couples. According to Zack Ford at ThinkProgress, the bill could provide an easy path for religious businesses, government officials, or even hospitals to deny services to same-sex couples.
It’s also endorsed by both the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore:
We are witnessing a growing climate of intolerance against individuals and organizations who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, with a ‘comply or else’ attitude being advanced by those who favor marriage redefinition in law. In this coercive climate, the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act is an important step in preserving religious liberties at the federal level.”
Again, these churches are under the impression that someone is trying to take away their rights due to a simple difference of opinion when the truth is that’s what they’ve been doing to us. (Do I really need to spell out the definition of intolerance again?)
Sen. Lee also said:
“Nearly every member of Congress on both ends of the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle, will at least purport to be a strong supporter of religious liberty, and this should be an uncontroversial position to take,” he said. “I don’t think anyone believes that the federal government ought to be making religious doctrinal decisions on behalf of churches and other religious institutions.”
Here’s the thing, though: the federal government is not making religious doctrinal decisions on anyone’s behalf, because that’s not its job. Equal marriage laws across the country make specific exemptions protecting churches, so much so that there is already a level of what’s essentially legal discrimination that only religious groups can access. As The Advocate points out:
The threat to which Lee refers to isn’t just “potential” at this point in time, it’s entirely hypothetical. President Obama has promised to respect the rights of churches and religious-based nonprofits to deny service or refuse to recognize marriages that go against their religious doctrine. Every state that has enacted marriage equality legislation has done so with strong religious exemptions protecting the rights of faith-based institutions to do the same. And the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution features a fundamental and oft-reaffirmed protection of religious liberty in its restriction that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Here’s the full list of Senate co-sponsors, including one or two who have been tapped as potential 2016 presidential contenders:
The Senate legislation is cosponsored by fellow Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Marco Rubio of Florida, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Roy Blunt of Missouri, James Rische of Idaho, Tad Cochran of Mississippi, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe. Companion legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives in September by a bipartisan group of Congresspeople, reports ThinkProgress.
I highly doubt a measure like this will pass, considering the vast quantity of protections already in place when it comes to religious groups, but it’s frightening that our elected officials find such a law to be necessary. This is one of many problems with the concept of a “religious exemption” to equal rights — it’s not actually equality if not everyone is following it.