When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993, there were good intentions all around. Legislation to protect (real) religious freedom in the face of government intervention? Who would oppose that? As Barry Lynn of Americans United notes, the law was meant to ensure that “Jewish children could wear yarmulkes in public schools or Muslim firefighters could wear beards.”
Obviously, that’s not what RFRA is all about today:
Since then, individuals, religiously affiliated federal contractors and even for-profit businesses have attempted to exploit RFRA to trump non-discrimination, health and safety laws. The most notorious example is Hobby Lobby, a national craft store chain with tens of thousands of employees, that used RFRA to refuse to provide its workers insurance coverage for contraception.
Even legislators have seen how RFRA has been twisted from a bandage into a cudgel. That’s why, yesterday, Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the “Do No Harm Act.” If passed, RFRA would still be used to protect religious freedoms, but it couldn’t be used as a weapon against others:
The bill simply says that RFRA shouldn’t be used to create religious exemptions to laws that are designed to protect our neighbors, like those prohibiting discrimination, requiring equal pay and protecting children’s welfare. It also says government officials and employees can’t use RFRA to refuse to provide services to the public; we all deserve to be treated equally by our government.
The Center for Inquiry is one of many groups supporting this legislation, saying in a press release:
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that protects all Americans, but this freedom does not include the right to restrict or control the behavior of others,” said Nicholas Little, Vice-President and General Counsel for the Center for Inquiry. “At its inception, CFI was one of very few voices cautioning that RFRA would permit religiously motivated discrimination, whether against religious minorities, the non-religious, women, or LGBTQ Americans. Sadly, we were right. But this fix would help ensure that the law could no longer be used as a weapon to impose one person’s religious beliefs on other unwilling parties.”
“We thank Reps. Scott and Kennedy for taking a bold and important step today to protect the religious freedom and equal rights of all Americans,” said Michael De Dora CFI’s director of public policy. “Members of Congress should put aside their partisan differences and approve this fair-minded amendment. We look forward to working with our partners on Capitol Hill, including religious, non-religious, church-state, and civil rights groups, to move this important measure forward.”
FFRF, which wants to repeal RFRA altogether, applauded the move:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation welcomes the introduction today of the “Do No Harm Act” to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA. FFRF applauds U.S. Reps. Bobbie Scott of Virginia and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts for their leadership in seeking to reform a law that has protected religious privilege, at the expense of true religious freedom.
The Human Rights Campaign added:
“Religious freedom is a core American value — and religious freedom claims should never be used as a guise for unfair and unjust treatment that undercut other people’s fundamental rights,” said HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy. “We commend Representatives Kennedy and Scott for introducing this critically important legislation that will preserve the core protections of the federal RFRA, while ensuring that it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”
It’s hard to imagine the bill will pass given the let’s-do-nothing-and-say-we’re-awesome nature of the Republican members of the House, but this ought to have bipartisan support. It would continue protecting the religious freedoms of those who genuinely need it instead of acting as a legal loophole for Christians who want to use their faith to discriminate against others.
(Image via Facebook)