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 at the time, 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. Now, Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) in the House and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in the Senate have 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 Do No Harm Act would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. Originally introduced in response to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision that made it possible for corporations to deny health care to female employees, the legislation would also overturn the Trump Administration’s recent waiver allowing child welfare agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and different religions.
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.
“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,” said Congressman Kennedy. “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.”
Kennedy and Scott have introduced similar legislation in the past, but it didn’t get anywhere. That doesn’t mean they should stop trying.
The bill has a lot of support from church/state separation groups including Americans United:
“In the era of the Trump administration, too many people across the country are suffering the consequences of discrimination in the name of religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We need to pass the Do No Harm Act now more than ever to protect people like our client Aimee Maddonna, who was turned away by a foster care agency for being the ‘wrong’ religion. We applaud Rep. Kennedy, Rep. Scott, and Sen. Harris for continuing to champion this much-needed legislation, which protects the true meaning of religious freedom — everyone’s right to believe or not as they see fit, as long as it doesn’t harm others. We urge all members of Congress to join them in defending one of our country’s most sacred principles.”
I know it may seem futile, since Senate Republicans will block any sensible legislation that 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.
(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)