WASHINGTON ― Barney Frank isn’t in Congress anymore. But you wouldn’t have known it if you’d seen him in a Tuesday House hearing, where he eviscerated an anti-LGBT bill in such granular detail that Republicans couldn’t dispute his points.
The former longtime Democratic representative from Massachusetts was on a panel of witnesses who testified before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, a GOP bill that would let the people in charge of any taxpayer-funded entity ― a business, a school, a nonprofit organization ― deny services to same-sex married couples if it conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage.
That means a government contractor, for example, could fire an employee for being in a same-sex marriage. A drug treatment facility could turn away people for being LGBT. A federal employee could refuse to provide veterans’ or Social Security benefits to a surviving member of a same-sex married couple.
Republicans behind the bill, Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), told the committee that religious freedom is under attack and their legislation would ensure that the federal government can’t deny tax exemptions to groups based on those groups’ religious views on marriage.
“This bill does not take away anything from any individual because it does not modify any of our existing civil rights protections,” said Lee. Acknowledging the controversial nature of his bill, Lee prefaced his comments by asking people to treat each other “with respect, kindness and decency” in the hearing.
It was something of a miracle that Frank, who is openly gay and openly grouchy, stayed quiet until it was his turn to talk.
“I appreciate this telling us that we should all be nice. I would reciprocate by saying, ‘Yeah, ok, how about being nice to me?’” he asked. “This is a legislative enactment that essentially says that the fact that I live in a loving, committed marriage with another man, it somehow affects other people’s freedom. And the Congress has to single that out to act against it.”
Frank proceeded to tear apart the bill, piece by piece, and eventually the hearing itself. He started with Lee’s comments about the legislation not taking anything away from people’s existing civil rights protections.
“Meaningless,” he said. “There is no federal legislation, and in many states no other legislation, that protects [LGBT people] against discrimination. So the argument, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry, because existing statutes aren’t pre-empted’ is irrelevant to many, many Americans who live in places where there is no such statute.”
None of the Republicans on the committee challenged his point. That’s because he’s right ― there is no federal law protecting LGBT people from being discriminated against in education, employment, housing, credit, federal financial assistance, jury service or public accommodations. In some states, it’s still legal for people to be fired from their jobs for being LGBT.
Frank then turned to Labrador’s testimony that the bill would not affect LGBT people’s access to housing. Frank knows a bit about housing policy: he previously chaired the House financial services committee and passed major bills affecting the financial sector and housing.
“He’s wrong about that, factually,” Frank said. “I spent a lot of time here working on affordable housing. We created the low-income housing trust fund. It says that you can build housing with federal funds for low-income renters. A very large number of these, contrary to Mr. Labrador’s view, and I say this because I specialized in this area, are nonprofits.”
He rattled off a specific page, line and subsection in the bill that explicitly says the federal government can’t deny funds to a nonprofit developer that plans to exclude same-sex married couples ― or unmarried couples who are sexually active ― from tenancy. One of the Republicans on the committee had to ask him where he was reading in the bill.
“I’m not making this up. I’m reading your bill. So don’t tell me it’s not there,” Frank said. “So if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, I guess you can move in there if you can prove you’re celibate. That’s an interesting form I’d want to see people fill out.”
That drew some laughs, but nobody could challenge him on that point, either.
Before his time was up, he looked at committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and criticized him for devoting time to anti-LGBT legislation.
“Mr. Chairman, I can’t say I’m glad you’re having this hearing. I really resent the fact that you’re having this hearing,” Frank said. “You’re singling me and a lot of other people out who don’t deserve this from you. We don’t deserve the unkindness and disrespect that we get.”
“I thank the gentleman,” Chaffetz replied.
Watch some of Frank’s remarks below: