September 2016 Church & State - September 2015

House Republicans Hold Hearing On ‘First Amendment Defense Act’

  AU admin

Americans United in July took aim at a dangerous piece of legislation in Congress that would give religious fundamentalists broad powers to discriminate against LGBT Americans and others.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony July 12 – the one-month anniversary of the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando – on H.R. 2802, the deceptively named “First Amend­ment Defense Act” (FADA).

The bill, as introduced, would allow people who hold the religious belief that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, or that extramarital relations are sinful, to  ignore laws that conflict with that belief. Individuals, businesses, health­care providers, taxpayer-funded so­c­i­al service providers, and even government employees would be allowed to use FADA to get around non-discrimination protections.

The legislation targets same-sex couples, but unmarried couples, couples in which one person has been married before, single mothers and anyone who has had sex outside of marriage could face discrimination under its terms. Even the children of parents who fall within any of these categories could lose non-discrimination protections.

Republican witnesses included U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah); U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho); Kelvin Cochran, the former fire chief of Atlanta who was fired for not following department policies and who       distributed anti-gay material to employees; Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with Alliance Defending Free­dom, a large Religious Right legal group and Matthew Franck, who works with the conservative Witherspoon Institute.

Three witnesses offered testimony against the bill: Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court marriage equality case Oberge­­fell v. Hodges; former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia University School of Law.

Obergefell testified to the real harm that is caused to couples when they are denied the full rights and benefits of marriage: “Losing the most important person in your life is never an easy experience or one that is free of heartbreak. However, losing John was made much more difficult by the state of Ohio because it refused to recognize our marriage,” he told the committee.

Frank focused in on one particularly egregious aspect of the bill: that it would authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination. He said, “I do not understand why people think I should pay taxes that fund a variety of federal contracts and then be excluded from receiving any benefits from them for which I am otherwise eligible because the contractor who has voluntarily sought these funds doesn’t think I should have married the man I love.”

Franke testified that FADA actually violates the First Amendment, explaining, “Protecting the religious liberty of some cannot be purchased by compromising or sacrificing the rights of others.”

Americans United and allied groups, finding the timing of the hearing troubling due to its proximity to the Orlando shooting, urged Republicans to change the date, to no avail.

The day of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the committee, noted, “To say that this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year.”

Americans United’s Legislative Department worked hard to oppose FADA and spread the word about its dangerous provisions. AU worked closely with congressional staff and submitted written testimony; AU’s executive director, Barry Lynn, also wrote an op-ed for Religion News Service criticizing the bill.

“The FADA is just the latest example of a troubling pattern of corruption of the noble concept of the freedom of religion and belief,” Lynn wrote. “As we make advances in LGBT rights, women’s equality and reproductive health, there are some who seek to undermine this progress. Under the guise of religious liberty, they want to deny health care, refuse to provide services, and disobey laws protecting our neighbors from discrimination and abuse. This is not real religious liberty.”

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