WASHINGTON – When the U.S. Supreme Court last summer gave same-sex couples the right to marry, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho said Congress should move quickly to protect the religious liberty of citizens who believe in traditional marriage.
Labrador introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that would prevent the federal government from acting against federal workers or institutions such as private schools that oppose same-sex marriage.
While Labrador has had no luck so far in getting Congress to act, his bill has gained plenty of attention from Republicans vying for the White House. Six of the GOP presidential hopefuls – including businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – back Labrador’s bill.
It’s all part of the growing national clash between same-sex marriage and religious freedom, intensified by the high court’s landmark 5-4 ruling June 26 that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
In Washington state, Barronelle Stutzman, a 71-year-old florist who owns her shop in Richland, was found guilty of violating the state’s anti-discrimination law when she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding, citing her religious beliefs.
Stutzman, who has owned Arlene’s Flowers for 20 years, said her relationship with Jesus made it impossible for her to design a floral arrangement for a wedding of two men. She’s awaiting a decision on whether the state Supreme Court will take up her appeal.
“The government is trying to take away my freedom of religion and expression,” said Stutzman, a member of Richland Baptist Church. “We don’t live in a free America if they can come in and tell me how to think and what to believe and what to express – or else they’re going to destroy it.”
Labrador said his bill would do nothing to interfere with state laws or Stutzman’s case.
“We just want to make sure the federal government is not discriminating against anybody for their religious beliefs,” he said. “I leave it to the states to make those determinations. . That’s why I’m a conservative and a states’ rights guy.”
Labrador’s bill would prevent any federal agency from denying a tax exemption, grant, contract or license to any person or business based on their beliefs that marriage is solely between a man and a woman and that sexual relations should be “properly reserved” for such a union.
It would give a legal shield to nearly 1,700 religiously affiliated colleges and universities, such as Brigham Young University and Baylor University, that have religious traditions discouraging sexual intimacy outside of marriage, even between heterosexual couples. The bill would protect the institutions’ tax-exempt status and allow them to continue to compete for federal contracts and grants without being penalized.
Under Labrador’s bill, similar protections would be granted to 29,000 religiously affiliated preschools, elementary schools and high schools, along with faith-based charities such as the Salvation Army.
Labrador said he wanted to make sure that vendors who provided services to the federal government would not lose their right to bid for contracts if they’d donated to groups promoting traditional marriage. And he said his bill would also protect a federal worker who might get fired for letting it be known at work that he backed traditional marriage.
Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the religious liberties argument had become the “Plan B strategy” for opponents of same-sex marriage after losing before the Supreme Court.
He called Labrador’s bill a “sweeping discrimination measure” that could have far bigger implications, even allowing federal employees to remove unwed mothers from federally subsidized public housing if they thought the tenants were having sex outside of marriage.
And he said the Washington state florist shop, like any other business that opened its doors to the public, had an obligation to serve everyone.
“They don’t get to pick and choose which customers they will and will not serve,” Thompson said.
In addition to Labrador’s bill, gay rights groups are out to defeat scores of bills that they say would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians at the state level. The Human Rights Campaign said Friday that more than 150 such bills were pending in 31 states this year, most of them related to same-sex marriage.
So far, four GOP presidential candidates – Rubio, Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson and former business executive Carly Fiorina – have signed a pledge saying they’d push Congress to pass Labrador’s bill and sign it within 100 days of taking office. Two others – Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – declined to sign the pledge but have expressed support for the bill.
Neither former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the two Democratic presidential candidates, backs the legislation.
Labrador has lined up 154 co-sponsors for his bill, most of them Republicans, including Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina, Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Dan Newhouse of Washington state. Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski is the only Democrat.
Newhouse, the only co-sponsor from Washington state, said passing the bill was “the next logical step” for Congress to take after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“If somebody holds a particular religious belief in this country, that’s one of the tenets of our founding,” he said. “I think protecting that is very important.”
Republican Mike Lee of Utah introduced a companion bill in the Senate, calling it a response to “government excess.” He said the rights of Americans had been threatened by government officials who had sought to “coerce, intimidate and penalize” those who believed that marriage should be strictly between a man and a woman.
Lee has won the backing of 37 co-sponors, all of them Republicans, including Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Rubio, another co-sponsor, touted the issue of religious freedom at a GOP presidential debate last week in Iowa, saying he will always allow his faith “to influence everything I do,” including the way he governs.
“I think if you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country, you don’t understand our history,” he said.
President Barack Obama entered the fray last September, saying in a speech in New York that “America has left the leaders of the Republican Party behind” on same-sex marriage. Obama said allowing Americans to practice religious freedom did not permit them to ignore the constitutional rights of others.
“We affirm that we cherish our religious freedom and are profoundly respectful of religious traditions,” Obama said. “But . we need to reject politicians who are supporting new forms of discrimination as a way to scare up votes.”
Labrador said his bill did not discriminate “in any way” and that Obama had a long history of trying to pit groups of people against one another.
“He wants to force people to think like he does, not just on this issue, but on every other issue,” Labrador said. “And that’s the kind of person that he is. . And that’s why our country is so divided.”
Meanwhile, Stutzman, the Washington state florist, said she feared she could lose her life savings, her home and her business if she were forced to pay more than $1 million in legal fees. She said she had received death threats and had had her business picketed, forcing her to install a security system.
But she said the fight had been worth it.
“If you don’t stand up now, there’s not going to be anything to stand up for,” Stutzman said.
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