Metro Weekly

New bill in Congress would clarify limits on RFRA’s religious protections

Do No Harm Act seeks to ensure that "religious freedom" cannot be used as excuse to discriminate

U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. – Photos: U.S. Congress.

Civil rights and social justice advocates are applauding a bill that would clarify that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used to infringe upon others’ civil rights.

U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who sponsored a similar measure last year, reintroduced the bill, known as the Do No Harm Act. Under the act, people with sincere religious beliefs would not be able to cite those beliefs as justification for discriminating against other people.

Specifically, the act would curb the use of RFRA in cases involving discrimination, child labor, child abuse, wages and collective bargaining, access to health care and contraception, public accommodations, or social services provided by government contractors.

“Inherent in our nation’s right to religious freedom is a promise that my belief cannot be used to infringe on yours or do you harm,” Kennedy said in a statement. “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was intended to protect against such distortions of faith, not to justify them.

Kennedy noted that, in recent years, legislation has been used to try and dismantle various civil rights  or workplace protections, necessitating the need for clarification on RFRA’s limits.

“RFRA has increasingly been used as a means to undermine the core rights of others under the guise that those rights interfere with the sincerely held religious beliefs of some,” Scott said in a statement. “Civil rights, labor laws, and access to health care should not be violated in the name of religious freedom under RFRA. The Do No Harm Act restores protections for these areas under the law to ensure that RFRA can no longer be used a means to weaken civil rights and other protections.”

Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and former head of the Civil Rights Division for the Department of Justice, praised Kennedy and Scott for introducing the act.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value enshrined in our Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Gupta said in a statement. “But claims of religious freedom should not be used as a license to discriminate. The Do No Harm Act is simple — it continues to protect religious liberty, but also protects victims of discrimination. There can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity.”

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the problem with RFRA as written is that it can be interpreted to give preference to those who wish to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others. Melling fears this will particularly be the case with the Trump Department of Justice, which is expected to issue guidance that will beef up religious exemptions.

“President Trump’s religious liberty executive order signed on May 4 lays the groundwork for RFRA to be further misused as a license to discriminate,” Melling said. “It’s now more important than ever to pass the Do No Harm Act to prevent discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com