Kennedy bill would bar religious exemption claims

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WASHINGTON – Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III on Wednesday proposed “clarifying” the Religious Freedom Act in a way that supporters say will prevent organizations, business owners and other individuals from using it to shield discrimination against others on the basis of religious beliefs.

Business owners who believe marriage is strictly a union between a man and a woman, for example, would be barred from using the Religious Freedom law to protect their refusal to provide wedding services for same-sex couples. Kennedy’s clarification would also eliminate a legal basis for claims of religious-based exemptions from Obamacare mandates to provide workers with insurance covering contraception services.

“The right of Americans to freely and fully express our faith is sacred in this country,” Kennedy said in a statement about his proposed bill. “But in order to guarantee that liberty for every citizen, our system must ensure that my religious freedom does not infringe on yours or do you harm.”

Groups including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that staffs nursing homes in 27 U.S. cities, including Somerville, cited the Religious Freedom act as protecting it from Obamacare mandates in a case recently reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The act was also cited by Hobby Lobby Stores and its founders in their successful challenge to Obamacare requirements, which the high court backed in 2014.

“While not its original intent, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has become a vehicle for those seeking to impose their beliefs on others or claim that the tenants of their faith justify discrimination,” Kennedy said. He further claimed that his bill “will restore the balance between our right to religious freedom and our promise of equal protection under law.”

Kennedy introduced the bill jointly with fellow Democrat and Virginia U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott.

The text of the bill specifically states that it seeks to “amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to protect civil rights and otherwise prevent meaningful harm to third parties, and for other purposes.”

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 should not be interpreted to authorize an exemption that permits discrimination against other persons, including persons who do not belong to the religion or adhere to the other beliefs of those to whom the exemption is given,” the bill states.