A new bill that aims to protect organizations that oppose same-sex marriage is invoking the ire of LGBT advocates, who call it subterfuge to undermine advances in marriage equality made in the past year.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Tea Party Republican, on Thursday introduced the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which is purportedly aimed to prohibit discrimination in the tax code against organizations that exercise “religious conscience” against same-sex marriage.
“Regardless of your ideology, we can all agree about the importance of religious liberty in America,” Labrador said. “Our bill will protect freedom of conscience for those who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue.”
The legislation enjoys bipartisan support right off the bat. Among the 60 original co-sponsors are Reps. Steve Scalise, chair of the Republican Study Committee as well as conservative Democrats Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.).
Others co-sponsors are Republicans well-known for their anti-gay views: Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
According to the Labrador statement, most religious institutions fall within the 501(c) portion of the U.S. tax code, which allows for tax exemption. Further, the statement contends if the bill were passed, no individual or institution that opposes marriage equality would lose that exemption for purposes of federal taxes.
An array of conservative organizations and religious groups have endorsed the legislation, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Organization for Marriage, Family Research Council, and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The bill is introduced following the controversy that ensued after the Internal Revenue Service apologized for targeting political groups with closer scrutiny based on names or political themes if they applied for tax-exempt status.
LGBT advocates responded to the introduction of the bill by saying it would rescind protections that married same-sex couples have received in the wake of the Supreme Court decision against the Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, called the bill “a sweeping Trojan Horse proposal” that would undermine constitutional protections.
“Decades of civil rights struggle, and long experience with both federal and state non-discrimination statutes, have made clear that we don’t need to gut non-discrimination laws to protect true religious freedom, and neither private religious views nor prejudice should get a special license to discriminate in the public sphere,” Wolfson said.
Freedom to Marry identified repercussions of the bill that it says are particularly “egregious”:
* Allowing businesses to refuse to provide Family & Medical Leave Act leave for the same-sex spouse of an employee to care for a sick loved one and to deny pension protections to married same-sex couples.
* Allowing federal employees to refuse to process the tax returns or Social Security claims of married same-sex couples.
* Allowing individuals to pick and choose whether they want to comply with federal laws, simply by invoking religious views.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, a lesbian and the Third Way’s director of social policy and politics, also said the bill presents more problems than simply protecting the tax status of religious organizations.
“The sponsors and press clips so far have focused on the idea of protecting churches and religious organizations from losing their tax status due to their views on marriage for gay couples (something that hasn’t ever been an issue), but the effect of the bill would actually be much broader and incredibly problematic,” Erickson Hatalsky said.
Among the problems with the bill that Erickson Hatalsky identified are a potential violation of the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment as well as contravening the Bush-established policy of “Charitable Choice”, which says that when a program is federally funded, a religious organization may not turn people away.
Further, Erickson Hatalsky said the bill as written isn’t just limited to married same-sex couples, but would allow federal beneficiaries to discriminate against anyone who’s had sexual relations outside of an opposite-sex marriage.
“That means a government-funded health clinic could be able to refuse to provide prenatal care to an at-risk pregnant woman because she is unmarried,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “Again, that goes against our longstanding principle that when taxpayer funds are involved, an organization must serve all comers.”