Metro Weekly

Inhofe amendment brings religious liberty debate to the Senate

James Inhofe - Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr
James Inhofe – Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr

One of the Senate’s most conservative members is taking the debate over religious freedom and LGBT equality to the national level, with the introduction of an amendment advocates say would undermine marriage equality.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced ten amendments Tuesday to the Senate Budget Resolution for fiscal year 2016, including one that takes direct aim at marriage equality. According to Inhofe’s office, Amendment 381 seeks to prevent the federal government from “discriminating against individuals, businesses, or organizations based on their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding abortion or marriage.” In essence, Inhofe’s proposed amendment would endorse the idea that organizations, businesses and individuals have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples due to their personally held religious beliefs.

“Under policies enacted by the Obama Administration, many religious organizations and individuals have grown concerned that they will be discriminated against by the federal government based on their religious beliefs,” Inhofe said in a statement. “We watched this play out in the Hobby Lobby case, where the Obama Administration used its healthcare law to write a new moral code by telling David Green that he could not apply his faith conviction of when life begins to how he operates a private business. Thankfully, Hobby Lobby won their case in the Supreme Court and religious liberty was preserved, but this is not the end to the assault. My amendment helps to protect the constitutional right for an individual, business, or organization to peacefully and freely adhere to their religious beliefs.”

In July, President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama’s executive order did not modify an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 allowing religiously affiliated federal contractors to favor individuals of the same faith in their hiring practices — something LGBT-rights advocates have called on Obama to change since taking office.

Inhofe’s amendment is one of many introduced by senators as the budget resolution goes to the Senate floor and it may never even come up for a vote. However, advocates are pushing back as the amendment appears part of a broader trend taking place across the nation as state lawmakers attempt to undercut gains made by marriage equality with “license to discriminate” bills.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, Inhofe’s amendment is an attempt to garner support for the idea that businesses and organizations should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples, all while their access to federal contracts and funds is not threatened.

“With nearly 60 percent of Americans supporting marriage equality, the Senate should reject Sen. Inhofe’s effort to turn back the clock on equality,” said HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy in a statement. “Senator Inhofe’s long record of opposition to LGBT rights is already notorious, but the question this week is whether the U.S. Senate rejects his extreme, anti-equality agenda. Sen. Inhofe isn’t even in touch with his own constituents. The Oklahoma legislature rejected more than a dozen bills aimed at harming LGBT people. Fair-minded Senators from both parties should reject this amendment.”

Inhofe has a long record is one of the Senate’s most anti-LGBT members, having gone so far as to boast on the Senate floor in 2006 that he is proud his family has never had a “homosexual relationship” in the recorded history of his family. His support for a religious liberty amendment points to a broader trend among marriage equality opponents who have focused their attention on religious exemptions as marriage equality has spread to a majority of states. 

The latest battle over a religious freedom bill is currently underway in Indiana, where state lawmakers approved a bill that would allow business owners to discriminate against same-sex couples. With Republican Gov. Mike Pence expected to sign the bill into law, a desperate veto campaign has been launched. Organizers of Gen Con, a gaming convention that attracted 56,000 people to the Indiana Convention Center last year and has $50 million annual economic impact, has threatened to move the conference elsewhere if the bill is signed into law.

“We all know Senate Bill 101 is about creating a license for some Hoosiers to discriminate against others in the name of faith, and we all understand that the law’s unintended consequences could harm LGBT Hoosiers, undercut our economic growth and put our children at risk,” said Katie Blair, the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, in a statement. According to Blair, Pence has “the ability to stop this dangerous bill dead in its tracks when it hits his desk.”

Similar legislation was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last year after enormous pressure from the business community and national media attention. However, other states, such as Mississippi and Arkansas, have since allowed such religious freedom bills to become law.

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