The bill, the First Amendment Defense Act, was introduced on Wednesday ahead of expected decision from the U.S. Supreme Court this month on whether same-sex couples have a right to marry across the country.
Proponents of the religious freedom legislation say it would prevent federal agencies from denying a tax exemption, grant, contract, license or certification to an individual, association or business based on their belief that marriage should be restricted to one man, one woman. For example, one stated intent of the bill is prohibiting the Internal Revenue Service from a removing a church’s tax-exemption status for refusing to perform same-sex weddings.
Lee said in a statement he introduced the Senate version of legislation because “there’s a reason the right to religious liberty appears first in our nation’s Bill of Rights.”
“The freedom to live and to act in accordance with the dictates of one’s conscience and religious convictions is integral to human flourishing, serving as the foundation upon which America has produced the most diverse, tolerant, and stable society the world has ever known,” Lee said. “The vast majority of Americans today still hold a robust view of religious liberty, yet across the country the right of conscience is threatened by state and local governments that coerce, intimidate, and penalize individuals, associations, and businesses who believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The First Amendment Defense Act is necessary to ensure that this kind of government excess never occurs at the federal level.”
In the Senate, the bill has a total of 18 co-sponsors, all Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). Another Republican U.S. senator who’s a presidential candidate, but not a co-sponsor, is Rand Paul (Ky.). In the House, the bill has 57 co-sponsors, including one Democrat: Rep. Dan Lipinski (Ill).
Similar religious freedom legislation was introduced during the 113th Congress by the same lawmakers and was known at the time as the Marriage & Religious Freedom Act.
Labrador said in a statement he introduced the House version of the bill because “America set the standard for upholding freedom of belief and worship in a diverse society.”
“No American should ever doubt these protections enshrined in the First Amendment,” Labrador said. “Our bill ensures that the federal government does not penalize Americans for following their religious beliefs or moral convictions on traditional marriage. Our bill shields against federal intrusion without taking anything away from anyone. In a shifting landscape, it’s time that Congress proactively defend this sacred right.”
But LGBT advocates oppose the legislation, saying it reaches beyond its stated purpose and, like controversial religious freedom measures in Indiana and Arkansas that were later scaled back, would similarly enable anti-LGBT discrimination, but at a national level.
Ian Thompson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legislation would “eviscerate” the executive order signed President Obama last year barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT bias in the workplace.
“This sweeping and dangerous bill would open a Pandora’s Box of taxpayer-funded discrimination against same-sex couples and their children,” Thompson said. “Attempting to wrap this discriminatory proposal in the language of the Bill of Rights does not change the reality of its attack on our national values of fairness and equal treatment under the law for all.”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, the legislation would “create a breakdown of government services and runaway litigation” and called on members of Congress to oppose the bill.
“Not only is it wrong to promote discrimination with taxpayers’ money, it’s even worse to allow those taxpayer funds to be used to reward discriminatory actions by federal employees,” Stacy said. “We call on members of Congress to oppose this reckless and irresponsible legislation that has nothing to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with taxpayer-funded discrimination. It’s time for Congress to prove they are not out of touch and to stand on the right side of history with the far majority of Americans who support fairness and equality for all Americans.”
The Human Rights Campaign in a statement cited numerous examples of discrimination that would be allowed if the bill became law:
* It would permit a federal employee to refuse to process tax returns, visa applications or Social Security checks whenever a same-sex couple’s paperwork appears on his or her desk.
* This legislation would also permit recipients of federal grants and contracts, including those for social services programs like homeless shelters and substance abuse treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people.
* It would allow any of these individuals or groups, or anyone else who believes they have been somehow required by the federal government to approve of married same-sex couples, to file a lawsuit and potentially receive damages from taxpayer money.