Faith­ful see fail­ure of re­li­gious lib­er­ties from GOP Congress

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRAD­FORD RICHARD­SON

The Repub­li­can-led Congress has shirked its duty to help peo­ple of faith ex­er­cise their be­liefs in pub­lic un­der an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is hos­tile to their con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tions, ad­vo­cates for re­li­gious free­dom say.

Nuns have been re­quired to pro­vide birth con­trol to their em­ploy­ees at Ro­man Catholic char­i­ties. Pro-life preg­nancy cen­ters must ad­ver­tise state­spon­sored abor­tions to their pa­tients.

“We have wit­nessed a host of omi­nous signs for re­li­gious lib­erty in re­cent years,” said Tim Bradley, a re­search as­so­ciate at the Char­lotte Lozier In­sti­tute, a pro-life non­profit think tank that doc­u­mented 16 in­stances this year of the ero­sion of free­dom of con­science at state and fed­eral lev­els.

The lat­est sign: Un­der a veto threat, the House and Se­nate re­cently passed the Na­tional De­fense Autho­riza­tion Act with­out an amend­ment that would

have ex­panded re­li­gious ex­emp­tions for con­trac­tors and grant re­cip­i­ents. Called the Rus­sell Amend­ment, it would have al­lowed fed­er­ally con­tracted em­ploy­ers to hire and man­age work­ers based on their re­li­gious be­liefs.

“Now, be­cause Congress ducked this im­por­tant is­sue, more ser­vice providers will be un­able to con­tinue of­fer­ing their crit­i­cal ser­vices — ser­vices that are some­times only of­fered by re­li­gious groups,” said Kristina Ar­riaga, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Becket Fund for Re­li­gious Lib­erty. “It is the refugees, home­less, traf­fick­ing vic­tims, vet­er­ans and other vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions who will suf­fer the most from Congress’ choice to pri­or­i­tize po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency over prin­ci­pled gov­er­nance.”

The $618.7 bil­lion mil­i­tary spend­ing bill sits on the desk of Pres­i­dent Obama, who threat­ened to veto the must-pass leg­is­la­tion if it in­cluded the Rus­sell Amend­ment.

Crit­ics of the amend­ment have said it would have al­lowed re­li­gious-based

“Re­li­gious lib­erty — pro­tect­ing great works that these groups are do­ing for the poor, for the vul­ner­a­ble, for those in need, of­ten go­ing places where no one is will­ing to go — that shouldn’t be a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball. We should all be able to sup­port pro­vi­sions that have ex­isted and func­tioned great for decades.”

— Amy Vi­tale, Becket Fund for Re­li­gious Lib­erty

em­ploy­ers to dis­crim­i­nate against the LGBTQ com­mu­nity in hir­ing and in pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits, such as re­fus­ing to hire an ap­pli­cant be­cause she is trans­sex­ual or deny­ing a gay worker ac­cess to a com­pany’s health care plan. The fed­eral govern­ment bans such prac­tices in its deal­ings and is right to re­quire the same of its con­trac­tors, they say.

Holly Holl­man, gen­eral coun­sel of the Bap­tist Joint Com­mit­tee for Re­li­gious Lib­erty, praised Congress’ pas­sage of the de­fense spend­ing bill with­out the Rus­sell Amend­ment.

“When the govern­ment con­tracts with a faith-based en­tity, it is con­tract­ing for the pro­vi­sion of sec­u­lar ser­vices, not to ad­vance the group’s re­li­gious mis­sion or iden­tity,” Ms. Holl­man said in a state­ment. “Re­li­gious groups who choose to com­pete for these sec­u­lar grants for sec­u­lar ser­vices should not ex­pect the govern­ment to pay for em­ploy­ees cho­sen on the ba­sis of re­li­gion to ful­fill the group’s re­li­gious mis­sion.”

But other re­li­gious lib­erty ad­vo­cates said Congress’ fail­ure to keep the Rus­sell Amend­ment in the leg­is­la­tion is a bad omen, es­pe­cially for re­li­gious char­i­ties striv­ing to make hir­ing and staffing de­ci­sions con­sis­tent with their faith with­out fear of gov­ern­men­tal reprisal.

“Re­li­gious lib­erty — pro­tect­ing great works that these groups are do­ing for the poor, for the vul­ner­a­ble, for those in need, of­ten go­ing places where no one is will­ing to go — that shouldn’t be a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball,” said Amy Vi­tale, a fel­low at the Becket Fund for Re­li­gious Lib­erty. “We should all be able to sup­port pro­vi­sions that have ex­isted and func­tioned great for decades.”

Ms. Vi­tale said the amend­ment — crafted by Rep. Steve Rus­sell, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can — would have al­lowed re­li­gious con­trac­tors and grantees to con­tinue to work with the fed­eral govern­ment with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their re­li­gious iden­ti­ties in the process.

“In the same way that you would not ex­pect a Demo­cratic of­fice to have to hire a Repub­li­can or vice versa, in the same way that the Sierra Club would want to hire peo­ple that sup­port its mis­sion of en­vi­ron­men­tal care, faith­based or­ga­ni­za­tions have al­ways been free to hire peo­ple who sup­port the same tenets and the mis­sion of their or­ga­ni­za­tion,” she said.

Sim­i­lar re­li­gious ex­emp­tions ex­ist in Ti­tle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act of 1990.

House Repub­li­cans sought to shore up pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious con­trac­tors in re­sponse to an ex­ec­u­tive or­der signed by Mr. Obama in 2014 cre­at­ing spe­cial pro­tec­tions on the ba­sis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity for the pur­poses of fed­eral con­tract­ing.

The House ver­sion of the Na­tional De­fense Autho­riza­tion Act con­tained the Rus­sell Amend­ment. But the Se­nate re­moved it af­ter Democrats, bol­stered by Mr. Obama’s veto threat, drew a line over the mea­sure.

Led by Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal of Con­necti­cut, 42 Democrats signed a let­ter op­pos­ing the amend­ment, ar­gu­ing that it would “sig­nif­i­cantly — and need­lessly — ham­per the great progress our na­tion has made in pro­tect­ing the rights of LGBT in­di­vid­u­als.”

Me­lanie Is­rael, a re­search as­so­ciate at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s DeVos Center for Re­li­gion & Civil So­ci­ety, said Repub­li­cans have a chance to bol­ster pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious free­dom once Don­ald Trump be­comes pres­i­dent.

“With the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion, we’re not go­ing to nec­es­sar­ily have that same is­sue. So I think there’s def­i­nitely still a de­sire by folks on the Hill to, whether ap­proach­ing it as a stand-alone piece of leg­is­la­tion or as an amend­ment to some­thing else, the pres­i­dent-elect can re­scind the ex­ec­u­tive or­der that started all of this in the first place,” Ms. Is­rael said.

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