The Do No Harm Act was reintroduced in Congress Feb. 25. This legislation would amend a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to make it clear that assertions of religious freedom can’t be used to take away the rights of others or do them harm.
What does that mean in the real world? How might this bill affect people like you? Why should you care?
As it happens, Americans United has several legal cases in the pipeline that deal with the issues raised by the Do No Harm Act. A closer look at these lawsuits explains why we need this legislation.
Consider the following:
The Do No Harm Act will ensure that the rights of people who use federally funded government services are protected. Americans who have fallen on hard times and need help – whether it’s food aid, employment training, programs for dealing with substance use, etc. – should be able to get it without being subject to discrimination or being pressured to take part in religious activities, period. Yet that’s not always the case.
In Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans United and allies are challenging a set of rules put in place by the Trump administration that threaten the rights of people who use taxpayer-funded social services. The Trump administration used RFRA as a justification to do away with protections for people in need. Under the Trump approach, religiously affiliated social-service providers that accept taxpayer funding are no longer required to give notice to people seeking services that they have certain rights, such as the right to be free from discrimination based on religion and the right not to be forced or coerced to participate in or attend any religious activity. The new rules also stripped a requirement that faith-based organizations had to provide a referral to an alternative provider if a beneficiary objected to the religious nature of the faith-based provider. The Do No Harm Act would ensure that RFRA cannot be used as an obstacle to the restoration of these protections for the rights of people in need of services.
The Do No Harm Act will protect students at public colleges from discrimination. Students at public colleges should be able to participate in campus life without facing discrimination because of how or if they worship or who they are. Federal law used to protect students, but in the final days of the Trump administration, new rules were issued requiring public colleges and universities to exempt religious student clubs from nondiscrimination provisions that apply to all officially recognized or school-funded student clubs.
This new rule undermines the nondiscrimination policies many colleges and universities have enacted to ensure that clubs don’t reject students from membership or leadership positions on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity or other protected characteristics. This prevents students from being compelled to subsidize a club that won’t consider them as members or leaders. Americans United and American Atheists are challenging the new rules in a lawsuit, Secular Student Alliance v. U.S. Department of Education. Under the Do No Harm Act, it will no longer be possible to use RFRA to justify discriminatory policies like this.
The Do No Harm Act will curb religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption programs. Children in foster care deserve loving families. Incredibly, the Trump administration created rules and granted waivers that made that goal harder to meet.
Consider the case of Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina mom who wanted to become a foster parent through a local child placement agency. But the taxpayer-funded agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, rejected Maddonna because she’s Roman Catholic, not an evangelical Christian as the agency requires. Citing RFRA, the Trump administration issued a special waiver to South Carolina so the State could allow Miracle Hill to discriminate on religious grounds, even though that violated federal law. AU is challenging the waiver in court in the case Maddonna v. Department of Health and Human Services. In a separate legal action, AU and Lambda Legal are representing Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, a couple from Texas that was turned away from fostering refugee children by a federally funded, faith-based agency that won’t work with married same-sex couples because they do not “mirror the Holy Family.” If the Do No Harm Act is passed, proponents of this type of blatant religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption programs will no longer be able to use RFRA to justify their harmful conduct.
The Do No Harm Act will protect Americans’ access to birth control. Decisions about when and if to start a family are private and personal. They should never be subjected to interference based on a boss’s or university’s religious beliefs. Yet all over America, workers and students are finding it harder and harder to access to affordable birth control, despite a federal law designed to protect access.
Religiously affiliated colleges have been a flashpoint. Officials at the University of Notre Dame have cited religious objections in refusing to cover birth control for students, faculty and employees. The Trump administration issued rules that allow employers and universities to rely on religious objections to deny employees and students health-insurance coverage of contraception. But in the Irish 4 Reproductive Health v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lawsuit, AU and allies assert that no employer or school should be able to use religion to dictate their employees’ or students’ health care choices. The Do No Harm Act would ensure that RFRA cannot be misused to limit our personal medical choices, which should remain private and free from religious dogma.
The Do No Harm Act isn’t addressing abstract or hypothetical issues. It will help correct real abuses suffered by real people right now. It should become law.