House committee holds hearing on bill to allow discrimination based on ‘religious’ and ‘moral’ beliefs

Proponents of a bill to protect people and businesses who wish to discriminate against same-sex couples say they were prompted to create the legislation because of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down state bans on same-sex marriage.

But the bill was introduced two weeks before that decision was released and appeared to be part of a political trend already developing in some states.

In his opening remarks at a House committee hearing on the bill Tuesday (July 12), bill sponsor Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) urged that everyone for and against the legislation “commit to treating one another with respect and courtesy.”

But, as former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said as a witness during Tuesday’s hearing, the bill was showing neither respect nor courtesy to him and his marriage to Jim Ready.

The bill in question is the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), H.R. 2802. It states that “the federal government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” The legislation also provides for the law should be construed law as providing “broad protection” for both the exercise of religious beliefs and “moral convictions.” And the bill defines “person” the same as defined in the United States Code –thus, it includes “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.”

Senator Lee and other pro-FADA witnesses before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform emphasized that they consider the legislation to be “exceptionally narrow” in its scope and that it would do “one thing only.”

“It would prevent the federal government from discriminating against particular disfavored religious beliefs,” said Lee. He said the bill is “absolutely critical” to many charities and service organizations, such as faith-based adoption agencies.

He and House sponsor U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said the FADA would not pre-empt existing civil rights laws and would not take “anything” away from “anyone.”

Frank disagreed.

“This is not about people’s right to think what they think….This bill empowers people to take my tax money and use it to do things and exclude me and Jim from its benefits.”

Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia School of Law who testified against the bill, said she and 20 other law professors analyzed FADA and found it to be both unnecessary and harmful.

“It doesn’t defend but violates the First Amendment,” said Franke. She said the First Amendment already protects the free exercise of religion “but it doesn’t protect every act a person takes” based on his or her religious belief.”

White House spokesperson Jeff Tiller said of the Obama administation’s position on the bill: “We strongly oppose attempts to roll back non-discrimination protections for LGBT Americans.”

Among the witnesses for the legislation was former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. He said he lost his job because he wrote some statements in a book that reflected his religious beliefs concerning homosexuality. Supporters of the FADA noted that Cochran was punished for his religious beliefs even though there was no evidence that he had ever discriminated against a person based on sexual orientation.

Not mentioned during the hearing is that Cochran’s statements included saying that homosexuality is a “sexual perversion” equivalent to “pederasty” and “bestiality.” A spokesperson for Atlanta said, at the time, that Cochran was fired for distributing the book to other employees and that statements in the book “directly conflict with the city’s nondiscrimination policies.”

Cochran filed a lawsuit against Atlanta, charging that he was fired because of his religious beliefs.

“President Obama remains firmly committed to promoting and defending the equal rights of all Americans,” said Tiller, “including the rights of LGBT Americans.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, chastised the Republican leadership for choosing the one-month anniversary of the attack on an Orlando LGBT nightclub to hold the hearing.

“It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate day to hold this hearing,” said Cummings. “Even if you truly believe that being gay is morally wrong, or that people should be allowed to discriminate against gay people, why in the world would you choose today of all days to hold a hearing on this discriminatory legislation?”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, did not respond to Cummings’ remarks.

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