Fighting Discrimination

AU’s Top Ten of 2023: The Do No Harm Act is reintroduced in Congress

  Rob Boston

Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, “The Wall of Separation” blog will recount the top 10 church-state stories from 2023. Today we focus on the reintroduction of the Do No Harm Act, important legislation that will clarify that religious freedom is not intended to harm others or take away their rights.

You might have noticed that religious freedom these days doesn’t mean quite what it used to.

This noble principle was intended to protect the right of everyone to believe as they saw fit and practice their faith without undue government interference – as long as they didn’t harm others. It has now been twisted by the U.S. Supreme Court into a device that all too often furthers discrimination and causes harm.

Distortion of religious freedom

Part of the problem lies with the high court’s misinterpretation of a 1993 law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The legislation was passed with good intentions. The idea was to shield religious expression, especially by minority groups, from government overreach.

RFRA was never intended to allow harm to others, and efforts are under way to get the law back to its original purpose. Earlier this year, the Do No Harm Act was re-introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Americans United applauded the bill’s reintroduction.

Restoring RFRA

“The Do No Harm Act will restore our country’s founding principle of religious freedom, which enables everyone to live as themselves and believe as they choose – so long as they don’t harm others.

“Congress must stop religious extremists and their political allies from exploiting the 30-year-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act to license discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, nonreligious people and other vulnerable communities,” said Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser. “RFRA was intended to protect religious free exercise, particularly for religious minorities. Originally supported by a broad coalition of unusual bedfellows, RFRA was certainly never meant as a tool to circumvent nondiscrimination protections and deny people access to health care, jobs and government-funded services.”

Laser added, “The Do No Harm Act will preserve RFRA’s original intent of protecting religious freedom while clarifying that it cannot be misused to deny people’s basic civil rights.”

Protecting freedom while doing no harm

The Do No Harm Act will preserve RFRA’s power to protect religious freedom, while also clarifying that it may not be used to harm others. It will ensure that RFRA is not used to: undermine nondiscrimination laws; deny access to health care; evade child labor laws; thwart workplace protections (such as fair wage and equal pay laws); allow contractors to refuse to provide government-funded services; and permit government employees to refuse to perform their duties.

The Do No Harm Act has wide support, and more than 100 civil rights, LGBTQ, reproductive rights, health, labor and faith groups have endorsed it.

You can help Americans United’s efforts to make the Do No Harm Act law. Contact your House member and senators and ask them to cosponsor this critical legislation.

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