House Takes Up Bill to Quash Religious-Motivated Bias

A panel of civil rights lawyers and one Christian minister settle in Tuesday for a hearing at the House on a bill that would amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Pushing for the government to stop protecting those who wield their faiths to hurt others, a civil rights lawyer urged House lawmakers Tuesday to curb abuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by the Trump administration.

“The Trump administration is ignoring the constitutional ramifications of RFRA,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“It is weaponizing it to undermine civil rights protections,” Laser added. “It harms women, people of no religion, the LGBT community and religious minorities.”

At a hearing this morning of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Laser was one of three lawyers and a Presbyterian minister who pushed for lawmakers to amend the RFRA with passage of H.R. 1450, otherwise known as the Do No Harm Act.

Recounting recent examples of how misuse of RFRA has bolstered discrimination, Laser told of children forced to stay in foster care at Miracle Hill Ministries because the South Carolina rescue mission “uses RFRA to impose religious litmus tests” on its applicants.

Though the agency receives $600,000 in federal funding, it accepts adoption applications only from evangelical protestants, Laser said.

Civil rights lawyer Rachel Laser testifies Tuesday at a House hearing on amending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Do No Harm Act, she added, would be a “first step” to closing these kinds of loopholes where employers and federal contractors use religious beliefs to discriminate.

Representative Phil Roe took affront to the suggestion, however, saying RFRA was created to protect free speech not to discriminate.

“This isn’t about forcing religious beliefs; this is about forcing people of faith to abandon their beliefs,” said Roe, a Tennessee Republican. 

A former obstetrician-gynecologist, Roe said the proposed RFRA change would create a slippery slope for people of faith.

“Will I be forced to perform something I believe is wrong?” Roe asked. “Will I be forced to perform an abortion?”

Matt Sharp, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, told Roe he believed the very purpose of RFRA was to serve the person who holds a deeply held religious belief but also faces a moral dilemma.

“We want that person to have a process to go to court and explain their convictions,” Sharp said. “The government can go and explain their positions too. We just want to have access to the doors of justice.”

Representative Suzanne Bonamici argued meanwhile that the Trump administration’s current interpretation of RFRA have led to a “pattern of attacks on women’s health.”

“Religious liberty could begin to subvert the right of other people,” said Bonamici, a Michigan Democrat.

Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., delivers remarks Tuesday at a House hearing the Do No Harm Act, legislation he sponsored to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican rebuffed Bonamici.

“I understand that I am a Christian first and a congressman second,” Walberg said. “My faith is not divorced from my life. And I would expect everyone else who has a similar belief, that they, in this country, should be free, whether they’re Judeo-Christian or not.”

The Do No Harm Act would change nothing about the 1993 law specifically, only amending it to specify that it cannot be used to discriminate. While House lawmakers are expected to approve the bill, its future in the Republican-majority is uncertain. A similar piece of legislation, the Equality Act, flew through a House vote.

A committee spokesperson did not immediately return request for comment Tuesday.

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