House Democrats Reintroduce Bill to Strengthen Civil Rights Protections, Restore Purpose of Federal Religious Freedom Law

February 25, 2021
Press Release
Do No Harm Act would address increasing use of religious freedom law to undermine civil rights protections

As originally released by the Committee on Education & Labor

WASHINGTON – Today, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05) reintroduced legislation to address the increasing use of religious freedom laws to undermine civil rights protections.

The Do No Harm Act restores the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to its original purpose, which is to protect religious exercise while ensuring religious freedom is not used to erode civil rights protections. The bill comes amid a sharp rise in the misapplication of RFRA to justify discrimination in a wide range of scenarios.

The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. permitted corporations to rely on RFRA to deny certain health care services to employees. Last year, the Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County indicated RFRA could be a “super statute” that supersedes protections against employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Do No Harm Act limits the use of RFRA in cases involving discrimination, child labor and abuse, wages and collective bargaining, access to health care, public accommodations, and social services provided through government contract.

“When Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, it was intended to protect religious exercise—not to erode civil rights under the guise of religious freedom.  Regrettably, we have seen RFRA repeatedly used to attack civil rights protections, deny access to health care, and allow discrimination in federal contracts and programs,”said Chairman Scott“The Do No Harm Act simply provides that RFRA cannot be used to limit access to health care, deny services supported by taxpayer dollars, or undermine the Civil Rights Act or other anti-discrimination protections.  Congress must take this critical step to ensure no one can weaponize religious freedom to erode our fundamental civil and legal rights.”

The bill also responds to the Trump Administration’s chronic misuse of RFRA to override anti-discrimination protections in federally funded programs. In one of the most egregious examples, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted a request from the state of South Carolina to waive federal religious nondiscrimination requirements for federally funded child foster care agencies.

“The honest application of a civil rights law doesn’t infringe on the civil rights of others, and doesn’t pit one group’s rights against the legitimate rights of another’s,” said Rep. Cohen. “This bill protects the original intent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and corrects the courts’ misguided interpretations that have allowed the religious rights of some to be used to undermine the civil rights of others. I’m pleased to join Congressman Scott in this effort.”

“The right to worship, pray and exercise your religion should never be converted into a right to discriminate against other people in the basic exercise of their own rights,” said Rep. Raskin. “The Do No Harm Act will make sure that the desire to discriminate does not get redefined as the freedom of religious conscience and then come to dominate all of social life.” 

“The free exercise of religious beliefs is, of course, one of our country’s founding principles,“ said Rep. Scanlon. “We must honor that principle while protecting civil rights which are also central to our American values. The original intent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was to make clear that the right to free exercise of religion does not mean the right to inflict harm on or discriminate against our most vulnerable populations. However, the use of RFRA in recent years as a sword to undermine civil rights, rather than a shield to protect them, requires us to pass the Do No Harm Act in order to preserve RFRA's original intent.”

“The Do No Harm Act will protect and restore our country’s founding principle of religious freedom – that everyone should be free to practice their religion or no religion at all, as long as they do not harm others,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Despite the intent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect free exercise and religious minorities, some are misusing what they call ‘religious freedom’ to ignore nondiscrimination laws and deny people access to health care, jobs and government-funded services. This exploitation of religious freedom especially harms LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious by undermining their civil rights and equality. We thank Reps. Scott, Cohen, Raskin and Scanlon for sponsoring the Do No Harm Act, and we urge Congress to quickly pass this critical bill to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield that protects all of us, not a sword used to harm some of us.”

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and protecting people of faith from discrimination is entirely compatible with protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “The Do No Harm Act will preserve the core protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) while clarifying it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections, including for the LGBTQ community. Congress must advance the Do No Harm Act to prevent anti-equality activists from manipulating RFRA to try and justify discrimination against LGBTQ people and religious minorities.”

“People are being turned away from health care, taxpayer-funded programs and businesses open to the public under the guise of protecting religious liberty,” said Georgeanne Usova, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Congress passed civil rights laws to prevent discrimination and now these laws are being undermined by those who want a license to discriminate. The Do No Harm Act will ensure that religious liberty protections cannot be misused to discriminate against and harm others.”

For a fact sheet on the Do No Harm Act, click here.

For a section by section of the Do No Harm Act, click here.

For the bill text of the Do No Harm Act, click here.

 

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