For several hours on June 25, I occupied a front-row seat in our country’s ongoing debate over religious liberty. The House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on the “Do No Harm Act” — a misleading title if there ever was one. The bill callously carves out pockets within American life where checks, specifically the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), against government-sponsored religious discrimination would no longer apply to people of faith. I testified in opposition, demonstrating why every person should have the same opportunity to seek relief from government restrictions on their faith.
To hear supporters of the bill tell it, religious liberty and RFRA serve now as a weapon wielded against women, minorities and the LGBTQ community — a concerning claim, if it were true. It is not. Throughout the hearing, members of Congress and panelists alike pontificated about their own deeply held beliefs and their firm conviction that certain religious beliefs (specifically those they personally dislike) cannot be followed in the public sphere.
Lawmakers put hostility to religion on display
For instance, Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., attacked a Christian foster care organization that serves everyone, including children of all faiths, but requires staff to share the organization’s Christian faith. Hayes completely mischaracterized the organization's constitutionally protected freedom to operate within its Christian convictions by saying that it “openly discriminates against foster parents based on their religion,” and chided that “this does not reflect the God I serve.”
Questions by supporters of the “Do No Harm Act,” like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., suggest that the freedom to follow certain beliefs about marriage must be abandoned when baker Jack Phillips opens his shop to sell custom-designed cakes.
Certain beliefs against providing abortifacients that end a human life must be ignored because Hobby Lobby’s family owners operate a thriving arts and crafts supplies business. Why? Because Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., believes that religious objections to paying for certain abortion-inducing drugs is “dictat(ing) their religious beliefs upon their employees.”
But just 26 short years ago, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sang a very different tune. With nearly unanimous approval, Congress and President Bill Clinton enacted RFRA, a federal law that restored protections for everyone to live and work according to their religious beliefs.
It provides every person of faith a chance to make their case in court — regardless of whether their beliefs are popular or obscure. RFRA itself doesn’t pick winners or losers. Rather, it presents a neutral, three-part test that a court must use when the government infringes on religious freedom: Has the federal government substantially burdened a person’s faith? If so, does the government have a compelling reason to burden the person’s faith? And has the government used the least restrictive means to achieve its goals?
RFRA protects rather than harms Americans
If you heard only snippets of the June 25 hearing, you’d wrongly assume that RFRA has dealt a crushing blow to basic civil rights. The truth is that RFRA is used by individuals and houses of worship — those for whom judicial relief provides the only check against the government steamrolling their religious exercise. And RFRA has helped a diverse array of faiths — from Muslims to Sikhs.
Not addressing why some faiths should be denied their day in court, progressive advocates criticized the Trump administration’s “co-optation of RFRA and the idea of religious liberty as a tool to threaten basic human rights of LGBTQ Americans, women, religious minorities and other vulnerable communities,” as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., alleged. Others have accused the Department of Justice of prioritizing religious liberty simply for political gain among evangelicals — overlooking the DOJ’s advocacy on behalf of Native Americans, Muslims and Jews.
Contrary to these claims, the Trump administration’s actions have not expanded RFRA beyond its well-recognized scope. Rather, they served as a course correction against an ever growing administrative state whose regulations — even when well-intended — increasingly burden people of faith.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also restored a degree of balance to the religious liberty landscape by reiterating in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision that government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society.
The court extended this logic a few weeks later by ruling in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra that pro-life pregnancy centers can’t be forced to point the way toward free and low-cost abortion services. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, “The people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.” The government simply can’t force Americans to express messages with which they disagree.
Liberals aren't the only ones guided by religion
The hearing in which I participated exposed the true intentions of progressives with devastating clarity: When a neutral law like RFRA is used by those with beliefs and practices that progressives disagree with, they will use every power available — including the levers of government — to deny those disfavored religious groups from even having access to a fair hearing in court.
And while members proudly proclaimed how their faith guided them while working for the government, they seem genuinely surprised that a Christian nonprofit would seek to be guided by its faith while working with the government to feed the poor, foster vulnerable kids and place children in loving homes.
Uniformity of thought has never been an American virtue. Toleration, diversity and freedom of thought — though imperfectly executed throughout our history — are the values that have made us a unique and thriving country. For this American experiment to continue, we must agree that disagreement is not discrimination.
Members of Congress are obligated — under oath — to support and defend the Constitution. This includes defending the rights to free speech and free exercise of religion for the beautifully diverse individuals who call America home. Doing so requires an honest attempt to respect the convictions of people with whom one disagrees. That’s the core and center of the American experiment — and I, for one, pray the center holds.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disagreement is not discrimination: ‘Do No Harm Act’ is a dishonest act to eject religion