‘Religious Liberty’ Bill Would Legalize Discrimination, Protect Anti-Gay Federal Officials

LGBT activists are up in arms – and rightfully so — after the introduction of a bill that would provide a legal loophole for anti-gay discrimination.

Idaho Republican Raul Labrador proposed a bill to the House of Representatives this week that serves no other purpose but to protect federal officials who seek to discriminate against LGBT people, particularly same-sex couples. It’s called the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act,” and it was inspired by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key provision of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Apparently, Labrador and others identified an “immediate need” to advocate for religious groups who believe they were deeply wronged by DOMA’s partial repeal.

After the court’s decision, “there were a lot of ideas about what to do,” Labrador said. “Some people looked at overturning it, or doing a constitutional amendment. I looked at the immediate need, which is the protection of religious institutions and churches, so that they can continue practicing their religion as they see fit.”

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID)

If passed, the law would “protect [religious] groups from discrimination by the government.” (Because religious groups are clearly victims of DOMA’s downfall.) Like similar bills that legislators have proposed in state and local governments, it would create an outlet for officials who don’t agree with marriage equality on religious grounds to legally discriminate against same-sex couples — and all in the name of “good conscience.” This time, though, lawmakers are proposing to allow discrimination at the federal level, essentially seeking to reinstate DOMA. From The Advocate:

The legislation seeks to allow federal employees, grant recipients, and government contractors the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages if such unions are against their religious beliefs. It also aims to create a legal framework to assist religious people who believe their conscience has been violated in suing the federal government for infringing on their religious liberty.

The bipartisan bill has about 60 cosponsors, but it’s completely unnecessary. As The Advocate points out, protections are already in place for people who want to opt out of LGBT-inclusive practices based on their religious beliefs. The U.S.  Constitution, for example, has strong protections for religious liberty, and the government does not require any clergy or other religious officials to perform same-sex marriages.

“There is no evidence that federal programs have or would discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs about marriage,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign. “What is clear, however, is that this legislation would give a free pass to federal workers, recipients of taxpayer-funded grants and others to discriminate against lawfully married couples.”

Backlash against the proposed bill has been overwhelmingly pro-religious freedom and pro-faith communities, demonstrating how these legislators have a very different idea of what “religious liberty” actually means:

“Every American understands the importance of protecting the rights of people of faith to hold and express their beliefs, including about the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Human Rights Campaign legislative director Allison Herwitt said in a statement. “But our Constitution and laws already strongly safeguard that liberty. The purpose of the legislation introduced today is simply to let federal employees, contractors, and grantees refuse to do their jobs or fulfill the terms of their taxpayer-funded contracts because they have a particular religious view about certain lawfully married couples — and then to sue the federal government for damages if they don’t get their way.”

As with every piece of legislation rooted in so-called religious freedom, this bill also paves the way for discrimination against a hoard of other non-Christian groups, too.

“This bill will set a very dangerous precedent,” Sainz added in an e-mail. “Accommodating religious beliefs on marriage may only be the beginning. The bill’s language makes clear that it should be interpreted as broadly as possible. Should federal workers and those who do business with the government get to turn away anybody they do not like based on religion — unmarried pregnant women? Atheists?  Muslims?  Or even another member of their own faith with different views?”

Another vocal critic of the bill is the Washington D.C.-based group Interfaith Alliance. Here’s part of the statement they released:

“The Marriage and Religious Freedom Act peddles the false notion that religious liberty and marriage equality are at odds, which is patently untrue,” said Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance. “The stated purpose of this bill is to prevent the adverse treatment of anyone because of his or her views on marriage. Yet this bill would result in the adverse treatment of same-gender couples who have made a lifetime commitment to the person they love through marriage. We must see this bill for what it truly is — discrimination against LGBT Americans and the further misappropriation of religious liberty to achieve that discrimination.”

“Misappropriation of religious liberty” is a brilliant way to sum this up. Once again, Christian communities consider themselves victims any time LGBT people take a step towards becoming equal citizens under the law. I don’t know what it says about these individuals and their marriages if committed same-sex couples are so threatening, but it’s clear that something’s off. Religious beliefs don’t justify discrimination of any kind, and especially not legalized, institutional discrimination. Simple as that.

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.