Metro Weekly

Democrats in Congress introduce “Do No Harm Act” to amend federal RFRA law

Bill seeks to ensure "religious freedom" is not used as a justification for discrimination

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

Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to amend the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to ensure it cannot be used to discriminate.

The “Do No Harm Act” would clarify that no one can seek a religious exemption from civil rights laws guaranteeing equal treatment. Specifically, it would limit the use of RFRA to justify discrimination against various groups, including LGBTQ people, or to justify child labor and abuse, wages and collective bargaining, access to health care, public accommodations, and social services provided through government contract.

The bill was co-introduced by U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in the House and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in the Senate.

The act was originally introduced in response to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision that made it possible for employers to refuse to pay for insurance coverage for employees that covers birth control or abortion services. It would also overturn the Trump administration’s recently-granted waiver that allows child welfare agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and non-Christians.

One example of this is the case of Aimee Maddonna, a Catholic woman who tried to mentor foster children through Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C., but was turned away because the agency will only work with prospective parents or families who are evangelical Protestants. Maddonna has since filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to grant the adoption waiver to South Carolina.

“In the era of the Trump administration, too many people across the country are suffering the consequences of discrimination in the name of religious freedom,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. “We need to pass the Do No Harm Act now more than ever to protect people like our client Aimee Maddonna, who wanted to help children in foster care, but was turned away by a government-funded agency for being the ‘wrong’ religion.”

“We cannot be equal or free if our government grants select Americans a license to discriminate against their neighbors under the guise of religious freedom,” Kennedy said in a statement. “By passing the Do No Harm Act, we can reestablish the sacred balance between religious liberty and the personal liberties of those who have too often had their civil rights bargained away.”

Supporters of the Do No Harm Act point to what they feel is an abuse of RFRA by religious conservatives in order to circumvent laws that they don’t agree with, such as those that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people or other minorities. 

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was originally passed in 1993 as a response to a Supreme Court case which undermined the rights of religious minorities,” Scott noted in a statement. “Unfortunately, in recent years, bad faith interpretations of RFRA has been used to deny health care coverage for employees, claim exemptions to civil rights law, and impede justice in child labor and abuse cases. This bill would restore the original intent of RFRA, and ensure that religious freedom is only used as a shield to protect individuals from discrimination, and not a sword to cut down the rights of others.”

“RFRA should be a shield for religious freedom — not a sword for discrimination,” added Ian Thompson, a senior legislative representative at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But this administration has spent two years weaponizing religious liberty in its hostility against marginalized communities, including most recently allowing government-contracted child welfare agencies in South Carolina to turn away would-be foster and adoptive parents because they are the ‘wrong religion.’

“It is now more important than ever for Congress to defend the American people from these attacks,” Thompson added. “The Do No Harm Act represents a meaningful step toward protecting individuals from discrimination, denial of health care, and other harms.”

“The freedom to worship is one of our nation’s most fundamental rights,” Harris said in a statement. “That First Amendment guarantee should never be used to undermine other Americans’ civil rights or subject them to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. I’m proud to reintroduce the Do No Harm Act in the Senate to more comprehensively protect the basic rights of every American.”

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