A House committee is holding a hearing today on Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador’s “First Amendment Defense Act,” which seeks to protect people who act because of their religious views about same-sex marriage or extra-marital relations from any federal penalties, including loss of federal grants, contracts, tax exemptions and more. You can watch live here.
The bill was introduced a year ago; Labrador is co-sponsoring it with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “Over the past several years, we have seen a shift away from our nation’s long-held beliefs in the value of religious freedom,” Labrador told the committee, “particularly where an individual’s religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman is concerned. This growing intolerance has spawned a climate of intimidation in the public sphere.”
He said, “All Americans should be free to believe and act in the public square based on their beliefs about marriage without fear of government penalty. The First Amendment Defense Act simply ensures the fundamental right to exercise one's religion by prohibiting the federal government from denying or excluding a person from receiving a federal grant, contract, loan, license, certification, accreditation, employment, or other similar position or status based on the exercise of that religious or moral conviction.”
Among those testifying today is James Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. He disputed Labrador’s characterization of what the bill would do, while agreeing that religious liberty is a “core American value.” Said Obergefell, “As I see it, this legislation turns this value on its head by permitting discrimination and harm under the guise of religious liberty.” He said it would allow private companies to refuse to let a gay employee take time off to care for a sick spouse, even though denying such leave would otherwise violate federal family and medical leave laws. “What could ever justify such a discriminatory and harmful action?” Obergefell asked. “I believe that the United States Congress must be better than this.”
Also testifying today is Kelvin Cochran, former fire chief of the city of Atlanta, who was fired after a highly successful 34-year career because he wrote a religious devotional book that quoted Biblical passages about marriage and Biblical morality, “beliefs that have been held by Christians for nearly two thousand years,” he told the committee. Cochran said he was suspended without pay for 30 days while an investigation was conducted, which concluded that he’d not discriminated against anyone on the job. But then he was fired anyway. “The city was insinuating that because of my faith, I discriminated against others,” he said. “It is still unthinkable to me that writing a book about my faith to help other men pursue God’s calling on their lives brought about the end of my career in public service.”
All the other witnesses, on both sides of the issue, agreed that what happened to Cochran was wrong. But all also agreed that Labrador’s bill, referred to by the abbreviation FADA, would not have covered Cochran’s case. He was employed by a city; the bill refers to federal agency actions only.
“Children do best with mothers and fathers,” Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel and vice president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the committee. She said the “Abrahamic” religions and the Bible say marriage should be only between one man and one woman. “There’s no question that there is government hostility to those who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.” She said if Cochran had been employed by the Obama Administration instead of the city of Atlanta, the bill would have protected him.
Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., cited the Biblical story of Abraham and Hagar, and said to laughter, “The Bible does appear to say that marriage is between one man and at least one woman.” Frank said he'd favor a law to protect anyone's political or religious statements, regardless of topic, from costing them their jobs as long as the statements were irrelevant to the job.
Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., a member of the committee, said he’s seeing “in our current day, the greatest assault on the free exercise of religion.” Quoting extensively from the Bible, he said, “People of faith are being discriminated against because they hold to the laws of nature and nature’s God. … This nation at its highest level, it seems, has taken a position against God.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said, “America is great because we are not a theocracy.” He said, “This bill to me is dangerous. … For the first time, it’s actually taking one particular religious belief of one religion, and elevating it to secular law. To me, the reason that is so dangerous is that is now leading us down the road to theocracy.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is presiding over today’s hearing, said the various legal experts testifying to the committee today expressed widely differing views about what the bill actually would do. He asked all of them, on all sides, to commit to work with the committee on the language, “to make sure that all rights are protected.” All agreed.
Labrador said the issue is a personal one for him. “I come from a religious tradition that in the not too distant past experienced intolerance, suffered discrimination and, fortunately, survived an official extermination order at the hands of the government,” he said of his Mormon faith. He called the bill “a reasonable, rational and important step forward in the protection of religious beliefs and moral convictions regarding marriage.”