Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) today introduced the Do No Harm Act in the U.S. Senate. The bill honors two core American values: religious freedom and equal protection of the law. And it couldn’t be more important right now.
The Do No Harm Act is simple: It’s designed to restore the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to its original intent. It will preserve the law’s power to protect religious exercise, but also clarify that it may not be used to harm others.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value. It ensures we can freely practice our beliefs but also that no one can use their religion as an excuse to undermine others’ rights or cause them harm.
RFRA, adopted in 1993, provides important, but not unlimited, protections for religious exercise. Under RFRA, if a federal law or policy substantially burdens someone’s religious exercise, the government must have a compelling interest in enforcing the law. If there’s no compelling interest, RFRA says that the person may be granted an exemption from following the law. The Do No Harm Act will ensure that any religious exemption granted under RFRA would not result in harming or discriminating against other people.
RFRA was born of good intentions: It was designed to protect religious minorities and ensure they can exercise their faith even when the government enacts rules that may unintentionally proscribe the practice. For example, a Muslim woman recently used RFRA to ensure she has the right to wear hijab while serving our country in the Air Force JAG.
In the two decades since its passage, however, many have misconstrued and exploited RFRA in ways that would harm and deny the rights of others.
For-profit businesses and federal contractors have attempted to exploit RFRA to ignore laws, for example, that ensure you aren’t discriminated against at your job and when you seek needed health care. The most notorious example is Hobby Lobby, a national craft store chain with tens of thousands of employees, which used RFRA to refuse to provide its workers insurance coverage for contraception.
Actions by the Trump administration make the Do No Harm Act more important than ever. The administration is using RFRA as a tool in its agenda to take away people’s rights. For example, a Department of Justice guidance memo uses RFRA to create a blueprint for discrimination, especially against women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. The memo asserts that RFRA allows taxpayer-funded organizations, corporations and individuals to use religion as a justification to discriminate, interfere with people’s access to health care and deny government-funded services to those in need.
The Do No Harm Act will protect religious freedom of all Americans and we need it now more than ever. 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.
We need you to take action to support the Senate Do No Harm Act and its House companion bill, which was introduced by Reps. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Please urge your Senators and Representatives to support the Do No Harm Act. You can do your part to make sure our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others.