Jun 26, 2019

Tuesday was a notable day for Americans United. AU’s President and CEO, Rachel Laser, was called before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor to testify on the misapplication of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) and its remedy: the Do No Harm Act.

Also testifying were Shirley J. Wilcher, executive director of American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, and the Rev. Jimmie R. Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness. Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group, acted as a Republican witness.

Before any of the witnesses spoke, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), set the GOP’s tone for the day by insisting that discrimination in the name of religion isn’t really a problem -- despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He was followed by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), the sponsor of the Do No Harm Act in the House. Kennedy did a good job countering Johnson’s views by adroitly outlining the issues and explaining why the legislation is needed.

In Laser’s opening remarks, she spoke of all the ways RFRA has been misused and perverted by the Religious Right and conservative administrations, most especially the Trump administration.

“RFRA, a statute designed as a shield to protect religious freedom, is now being used as a sword to cause harm,” Laser said. “The Trump administration has cited RFRA to create harmful religious exemptions – and more are coming.”

As Laser made clear, the misuse of RFRA is especially unfortunate because it was intended to protect religious freedom, particularly for members of minority religious faiths, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision called Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith.

The Smith ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, concerned two Native Americans who had consumed peyote in a religious ritual were fired due to their failure to pass a drug test. In handing down this ruling, the court majority tossed out a legal standard that had been in place for decades. RFRA was passed to restore that standard and offer protection to minority religious expression.

But more recently, RFRA has been purposefully misinterpreted by the Religious Right as a license to discriminate. Instead of protecting the religious freedom rights, RFRA has all too often been turned into a tool to impose religious beliefs on others.  AU supports the Do Harm Act to get RFRA back to its original intention.

To cite some specific examples, the George W. Bush administration pointed to RFRA to buttress its assertion that faith-based federal grant recipients could impose a religious litmus test on potential employees. And after the Affordable Care Act was passed, for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby cited RFRA to deny insurance benefits to employees – in this case, contraception coverage – if it violated the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.

Things have only gotten worse since then. During her testimony, Laser discussed Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina mother of three who’s Catholic and who was turned away from volunteering at a taxpayer-funded adoption agency because she’s not an evangelical Christian.

It was discouraging to hear so many conservatives on the committee, led by U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), argue that religious freedom can be an instrument of discrimination. We know better, and during the question period, Laser did a great job debunking these arguments and making it clear why we need the Do No Harm Act.

Americans United’s website a slew of resources about the Do No Harm Act, including Laser’s full written testimony and video of the hearing. I hope you’ll check it out. But the most important thing you can do is help AU get the Do No Harm Act passed. Please urge your lawmakers to act today.