Congress combats targeting of traditional marriage advocates

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Capitol at Sunset Credit: vgm8383 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A new bill protecting the religious liberty of traditional marriage advocates has the support of two leading U.S. bishops. But will the First Amendment Defense Act be enough to stem the rising tide of anti-discrimination lawsuits across the nation?

The First Amendment Defense Act establishes protections – largely regarding federal taxes and benefits – for individuals and organizations who conscientiously believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and that no sexual relations should take place outside this bond.

“In a climate of increasing intolerance, these protections are very much needed,” wrote Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in a letter to the bill’s sponsors. Archbishop Cordileone chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, while Archbishop Lori chairs the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

“The teaching of the Catholic Church about marriage is based on both faith and reason,” the archbishops wrote. “Using right reason, one can know that given the nature of the human person, created as male and female, marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”

“The leadership of our Church will continue to promote and protect the natural truth of marriage as foundational to the common good.”

If marriage is redefined at the national level to include same-sex couples, the First Amendment Defense Act would bar the government from penalizing individuals and organizations who refuse to recognize or serve same-sex marriages.

For instance, the government could not deny persons federal benefits simply based upon their beliefs on marriage. They could not revoke the tax-exempt status of non-profits who don’t support same-sex marriage, and they could not deny federal grants or contracts to businesses just because of their religious beliefs on marriage.

The measure comes just as the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the constitutional right to same-sex marriage. A decision is expected by the end of June. If the court recognizes or declares such a right, persons and businesses could face fines or discrimination lawsuits for refusing to serve or recognize same-sex marriage on conscience grounds.

The Obama administration has already hinted that organizations could lose tax-exempt status. During the April 28 oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Samuel Alito pressed Solicitor General Donald Verrilli – arguing for legal same-sex marriage on behalf of the Obama administration – on the matter.

Citing the case of Bob Jones University which lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 over its ban on interracial dating, Alito asked Verilli if a religiously-affiliated college opposing same-sex marriage would risk losing its tax-exempt status if the Court decided a right to same-sex marriage.

“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that,” Verilli admitted.

The First Amendment Defense Act was introduced in Congress on June 17 by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). The measure has 18 co-sponsors in the Senate and 57 co-sponsors in the House.

“Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American,” Rep. Labrador said.

Sen. Lee added, “There’s a reason the right to religious liberty appears first in our nation’s Bill of Rights. The freedom to live and act in accordance with the dictates of one’s conscience and religious convictions is integral to human flourishing, serving as the foundation upon which America has produced the most diverse, tolerant, and stable society the world has ever known.”

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