These Congressmen Are Trying To Curb Religious Freedom Abuses

It's the second time Reps. Joe Kennedy and Bobby Scott have tried to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with their "Do No Harm" bill.

Two Democratic congressmen are working to ensure religious freedoms aren’t used to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women and other marginalized groups.

On Thursday, Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) reintroduced the “Do No Harm Act,” an amendment to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act “would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights,” according to a press release.

The legislation failed to take off last year when Kennedy and Scott first introduced it, despite amassing the support of dozens of equal rights groups.

“Inherent in our nation’s right to religious freedom is a promise that my belief cannot be used to infringe on yours or do you harm,” said Kennedy in a release Thursday. “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was intended to protect against such distortions of faith, not to justify them.”

Congress initially passed the RFRA in 1993 to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The law passed after two members of a Native American church in Oregon who used the Schedule I hallucinogen peyote for religious purposes were fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that the individuals were not exempt from Oregon’s narcotics laws.

Though the act aimed to shield individuals’ religious freedom from government infringement, some Christian groups and for-profit companies have used religious liberty claims to discriminate against women and members of the LGBTQ community.

The issue came to light in 2014 after the Supreme Court ruled that Christian-owned craft store Hobby Lobby could refuse contraceptive coverage to their female employees based on RFRA exemptions.

The following year, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act that opponents argued could be used by business owners to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In 2016, a federal district court granted a Christian funeral home a Title VII exemption under the RFRA after it fired a transgender employee.

The Do No Harm Act “comes in response to continued efforts across the country to cite religious belief as grounds to undermine Civil Rights Act protections, limit access to healthcare, and refuse service to minority populations,” stated a release on Rep. Scott’s website.

“Civil rights, labor laws, and access to health care should not be violated in the name of religious freedom under RFRA,” Scott said.

A number of civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, Americans United, and the Secular Coalition for America voiced their support for the bill on Thursday.

“Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to discriminate. Numerous cases have shown that RFRA as written can lead to unacceptable civil rights violations,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, in a statement.

Melling warned that President Donald Trump’s May 4 religious liberty executive order, which granted churches greater involvement in politics, “lays the groundwork for RFRA to be further misused as a license to discriminate.”

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement: “Our laws should be a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others.”

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