Rep. Labrador: Religious liberty threatened by ‘growing intolerance’ in America

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( – Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) promoted his bill to protect religious liberty, which he called a “fundamental freedom” that is being threatened by a “growing intolerance” in the public sphere.

“Religious pluralism is a hallmark of our nation’s promise. It is what continues to make the land of the free so attractive to religious refugees and earnest seekers from around the world whose humble wish is the free exercise of religion.

“It is unsurprising then that when it came time for our Founding Fathers to list those rights most fundamental to a free and fulfilled people, the freedom of religion was prominently placed before the rest,” Labrador said Tuesday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to testify before you today because I fear that this fundamental freedom is threatened,” the congressman said.

“Over the past several years, we have seen a shift away from our nation’s long-held beliefs in the value of religious freedom, particularly where an individual’s religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman is concerned. This growing intolerance has spawned a climate of intimidation in the public sphere,” Labrador continued.

“I have worked with Senator [Mike] Lee for the past three years on the First Amendment Defense Act to protect individuals, churches and other religious institutions, including institutions of higher education, from government discrimination simply because they exercise what, until recently, we as Americans believed to be unalienable, self-evident rights.

“No American should be threatened or intimidated because of their belief in traditional marriage,” the congressman said.

The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) was introduced by Labrador in June 2015, just days before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalized same-sex marriage across all 50 states.

The justices argued that under the Fourteenth Amendment, the marriages of same-sex couples should be recognized in all states, including marriage licenses that were obtained out-of-state.

The court’s ruling spawned a number of lawsuits between same-sex couples and those, like Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to participate in same-sex weddings due to their religious beliefs.

Labrador’s bill – which states that “protecting religious freedom from Government intrusion is a Government interest of the highest order” – seeks “to prevent discriminatory treatment of any person on the basis of views held with respect to marriage.”

But Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, claimed that this legislation would promote “discrimination” and “harm” under the guise of religious freedom.

“I understand that the proponents of this legislation argue that it is necessary to protect churches, clergy and others who oppose marriage equality for religious reasons, but the First Amendment is already clear on this point,” Obergefell told the committee.

“Since the founding of this country, no church and no member of the clergy has been forced to marry any couple if doing so would violate their religious teachings. That has not changed since same-sex couple won the freedom to marry,” he continued.

“[This bill] could allow any privately owned business to refuse to let a gay or lesbian employee take time off to take care of a sick spouse even though otherwise that would violate federal family and medical leave laws,” he later added. “This is not the kind of dignity and respect that the Supreme Court spoke so eloquently of in the decision granting the freedom to marry nationwide last June.”

Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, defended the bill, testifying that that various mischaracterizations of FADA are invalid.

“First, any attempt to demonize those who adhere to the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is wrong. Since when have we assumed anyone who holds a different view is motivated by hatred or animus?” Waggoner asked.

“Second, comparing those who believe in man-woman marriage to racists is intellectually dishonest. Racists of Jim Crow America subjected African-Americans to fire hoses and lynch mobs. They burned their businesses, they bombed their churches, and they destroyed their communities,” she continued.

“In contrast, those who believe in man-woman marriage seek only to peacefully live and work consistent with this truth. One that is universally recognized by all major religious faiths, by all cultures, by all civilizations and by all races throughout human history.”

Katherine Franke, a professor at the Columbia Law School, argued that the bill is too “vague” and questioned its draftsmanship.

But Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), a cosponsor of the bill in the Senate, defended the proposed legislation.

“The bill reaffirms the letter of the First Amendment. It also strengthens the spirit of the First Amendment. It does so by stating, unequivocally, that the federal government may not revoke or deny the federal tax exemption or any grant, or contract, accreditation, license or certification to any individual or to any institution based on a religious belief about marriage,” Lee said.

However, Rep. Eleanor Norton (D-DC) claimed the bill was offensive towards members of the LGBTQ community, particularly those who live in the nation’s capital.

“I’m deeply offended by this bill because it is not only an attack on the LGBTQ community… but it is an attack on sovereignty in the District of Columbia itself,” she said. “This bill was actually withdrawn and rewritten in order to include the nation’s capital and…it would make the capital of this nation a discrimination-zone for LGBTQ rights.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) later responded: “I can tell you, talking to my good friends Senator [Mike] Lee and [Rep.] Raul Labrador, that is [not] their intent. It is not to discriminate. In fact, if anything, it is to stop discrimination and that needs to be the underlying principle here today and all of the argument going back and forth.”

Kelvin Cochran, former fire chief of the Atlanta Fire Department, also testified about his ordeals as an African-American in the fire department decades ago. He said he was told by a city council member that he would have to “check his religious beliefs at the door.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) pointed out that FADA would protect people like Cochran from that type of discrimination.

“That is exactly why we have a First Amendment. You do not have to check your beliefs, right? That’s what this country’s about. … You have to check your beliefs at the door? Are you kidding me? That’s why this bill is important,” Jordan said.

“People like Mr. Cochran, they shouldn’t have to check their beliefs at the door. Here’s a guy who did nothing wrong, believed in strongly held religious beliefs…and the city council member said you have to check them at the door. …

“That’s why this legislation needs to pass,” Jordan said.

— Written by Alex Grubbs