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 noted, 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. Last year, Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the “Do No Harm Act.” If passed, RFRA could 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.
Unfortunately, that bill didn’t go anywhere.
Both congressmen, however, have now reintroduced it with the hope that things will change in the future.
The Secular Coalition for America lauded the bill in a press release:
“Invoking your beliefs to discriminate against others is not an exercise of religious freedom but an assertion of religious privilege,” said Larry T. Decker, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “For too long, RFRA has been exploited by businesses and organizations who think their religious beliefs put them above the law. The Supreme Court cases of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell (2014) and Zubik v. Burwell (2016) demonstrated how the loopholes in RFRA can be used to impose religion on others. The Do No Harm Act is a much needed and long overdue correction to RFRA. We are grateful to Representatives Kennedy and Scott for reintroducing this legislation and their continued efforts to champion true religious freedom.”
The Secular Coalition for America honored Representative Bobby Scott with its National Visibility Award at its annual awards dinner on June 14. In his acceptance speech, Rep. Scott announced his intent to reintroduce the Do No Harm Act, stating, “[T]he principle that individuals can use their conscience-based objections to undermine otherwise applicable civil rights laws sets a dangerous precedent … Religious freedom should be a shield, but now it is being used as a sword. To prevent this, Congressman Joe Kennedy and I will reintroduce the Do No Harm Act.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State added:
“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. Our country is strongest when we are all free to believe or not, as we see fit, and to practice our faith without hurting others,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The Do No Harm Act will protect the religious freedom of all Americans.”
“Our laws should be a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others,” said Lynn. “Although RFRA certainly provides important protections for religious exercise, some have used the law in ways that harm and deny the rights of others. RFRA, of course, was never intended to do any of these things.”
I know it may seem futile right now, with Republicans blocking any sensible legislation since it might disappoint their conservative Christian base, but this sort of bill has other purposes. It raises awareness of the issue. It pushes members of Congress to take a stance on the bill, especially if constituents call their offices. And it’s legislation that’s ready to go if and when we ever see a competent Congress and White House again.
The bill is not yet available online, but please call or write your legislators and urge them to support (or even co-sponsor) it.
(Image via Facebook. Large portions of this article were published earlier)