A U.S. House committee has scheduled a hearing on July 12 for federal “religious freedom” legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination, the Washington Blade has learned.
The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is set to hold a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act amid pressure from anti-LGBT advocates, including the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, to move forward with the legislation.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who’s gay and a co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, denounced the committee’s decision to hold a hearing in a statement as “nothing more than an election-year stunt to rally conservatives at the expense of LGBT Americans.”
“In most states, you can get married on Saturday, post photos of your wedding to Facebook on Sunday and then get fired or kicked out of your apartment on Monday just because you’re gay,” Cicilline added. “FADA exacerbates this injustice by allowing religion to be used as a blanket excuse for denying LGBT people access to employment, housing, mental health care, emergency shelters and other essential services. This is wrong. Fairness and equality are core American values.”
Cicilline called on Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a supporter of the legislation and chair of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, to cancel the hearing.
“And in 2016, no American should ever be made to feel less than equal – especially not by their elected representatives,” Cicilline said. “On behalf of the LGBT Equality Caucus, I call on all members of Congress to oppose H.R.2802 and urge Chairman Chaffetz to cancel this hearing immediately.”
Introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the U.S. House and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the U.S. Senate, the First Amendment Defense Act has the purported purpose of preventing federal government action against individuals and businesses that oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons. Critics say it essentially carves out a legal exemption for anti-LGBT discrimination.
In May, the Washington Blade reported the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform was “working toward a hearing” on the legislation, although at the time no date was scheduled. The committee is packed with conservative Republicans, including Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), who recently attached to a major defense spending bill an amendment that would undermine President Obama’s executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.
A senior Hill staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the committee sent out invitations to witnesses on the conservative side designating July 12 as the date of the hearing. The staffer declined to share a copy of the invite with the Washington Blade.
The invited witnesses, the Hill staffer said, are Kelvin Cochran, a former Atlanta fire chief fired for distributing a book making a biblical case against homosexuality; Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel and senior vice president of U.S. legal advocacy for the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom; and Matthew Franck, a political science professor from the Witherspoon Institute.
It’s unknown at this time if opponents of the legislation will be able to invite witnesses to the hearing. The majority allocates the number of witnesses the minority can invite, which in this case could be one or zero.
MJ Crenshaw, a spokesperson for the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, confirmed the hearing will take place on July 12 in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building, but said no further details are available.
The invitations are jointly from both Labrador and Lee, the Hill staffer said, suggesting a joint hearing with the Senate is possible, or just that Lee will be present at the House hearing.
Conn Carroll, a Lee spokesperson, said her boss hopes the Senate will follow up with a hearing of its own, but “no date” has been set.
Introduced last year prior to the expected ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, the First Amendment Defense Act is seen as an attempt to make a carve out into that decision without entirely overturning it.
Among other things, LGBT advocates have said the legislation as introduced would 1) permit a federal employee to refuse to process tax returns, visa applications or Social Security checks for same-sex couples; 2) allow 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; and 3) permit anyone 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 funds.
On the Senate side, Lee has presented a new version of the First Amendment Defense Act that limits that carve-out for opponents of same-sex marriage, although the update hasn’t officially been filed.
The new version, which is displayed on Lee’s website, spells out protections from government action won’t apply to publicly traded for-profit entities; federal employees acting within the scope of their employment; federal for-profit contractors acting within the scope of their contracts; and hospitals and nursing homes with respect to visitation, decision-making on health care and certain treatments.
The anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage has been pushing for a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act in a campaign it calls “Fax for FADA.” The effort encourages supporters to sign a petition in support of the legislation, which triggers a fax sent to House Republican leadership and the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee.