Bogus Defense: U.S. House Holds Hearing On Bill That Would Violate First Amendment and Harm LGBT Persons

Yesterday was the one-month anniversary of the shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people. This has been a difficult month for the LGBT community, yet on the anniversary, House Republicans held a hearing on a bill aimed at allowing discrimination against same-sex couples and their families in the name of “religious freedom.”

As Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) noted, “To say that this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony on H.R. 2802, the deceptively named “First Amendment Defense Act” (FADA). The sweeping bill would let those who hold the religious belief that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman or that “extramarital relations” are sinful to ignore laws that conflict with that belief. Individuals, businesses, healthcare providers, and taxpayer-funded social service providers would all be allowed to use FADA to get around nondiscrimination protections.

The Religious Right is still working overtime to undermine marriage equality.

The far-reaching bill targets same-sex couples, but unmarried couples, couples in which one person had been married before, single mothers and anyone who has had sex outside of marriage could face discrimination. Even the children of parents who fall within any of these categories could lose non-discrimination protections they would otherwise have.

Three witnesses offered powerful testimony against the bill: Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 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.

Jim 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.”

Barney 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.”

Katherine 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.”

Of course, the bill sponsors also testified, but perhaps because the bill does much more harm than they are willing to admit, they left the hearing before taking questions. A few others testified in favor of the legislation and kept trying to explain, unpersuasively, that the bill was narrow in scope. Professor Franke quipped that if that were true, she’d give an F to whomever drafted it because the text of the bill is actually quite sweeping. In reality, it would use religion as an excuse to harm many of our neighbors.

Here at Americans United, we have worked hard to oppose this damaging FADA legislation. My colleagues worked closely with congressional staff and submitted testimony.  AU’s executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, wrote an op-ed criticizing the bill.

He also explained that the legislation is part of a distressing trend. 

“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.”

We believe no American should be treated as a second-class citizen in the name of faith. Learn more about our work to fight FADA and other attempts to discriminate under the guise of “religious freedom” with our Protect Thy Neighbor campaign.