On Tuesday, June 25, the Education and Labor Committee held a hearing titled “Do No Harm: Examining the Misapplication of the ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act.’” The hearing was a review of recent cases involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and how new proposed legislation, the Do No Harm Act is intending to narrow the application.
In his open statement, Chairman Scott (D-VA) described the historical backdrop to discrimination and religious freedom in the United States, stating while religion has “furthered social justice causes, such as the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement, and movement to end child labor”, “some have used religion as a pawn to justify slavery, Jim Crow, the slaughter of our native populations, and other horrific acts.” He further explained that RFRA was passed to protect the right of citizens to practice religion “if there is compelling government interest and if it is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.” He went on to say RFRA is being used outside of its original intention and that is why the Do No Harm Act is needed.
Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC) began her opening statement by discussing the bipartisan support for RFRA when it passed in 1993, and how it stands as an important symbol of religious freedom for all Americans, including religious minorities. She continued, “The Affordable Care Act and other policies of the Obama administration have imposed countless coverage mandates for contraception and abortion coverage that attempt to force individuals to violate their religious beliefs. Small business owners and religious groups have spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours, defending their values and consciences. And the Supreme Court has ruled time and again that these attempts to limit religious expression are unlawful.” She went on to say the First Amendment is what sets the United States apart and the Do No Harm will undermine those rights.
The first witness, Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, discussed the South Carolina case of Aimee Madonna’s family being denied the ability to have foster children by Miracle Hill Ministries, despite being a “good fit” family. Miracle Hill only allows volunteers and mentors who are Evangelical Protestant Christians. Laser continued that despite receiving federal funding, there are many religious foster care groups who deny parents the ability to take in a child due to their religious affiliation and denies many children of their right to find a loving home. However, J. Matthew Sharp, Senior Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that without these religious charity groups, there would be larger stress on the state to find homes for these children. He claimed that under the Do Not Harm Act, “faith-based providers would no longer have the opportunity to demonstrate in court why their God-honoring sincerely-held religious beliefs should be accommodated under RFRA’s balancing test.”
In the questioning period, Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) asked if it was morally just for LGBTQ parents to be discriminated against when applying to host foster children. Sharp replied that “RFRA doesn’t pick winners and losers, it just lays the framework for the court proceedings” and Laser responded that if these organizations wanted to have federal funding, they need to have non-discriminatory policies and that religious freedom was not intended to infringe on others’ liberties. Congressman Van Taylor (R-TX) asked if parents had the right to choose the religion to which their child is raised, and all of the panelists responded yes. To this, Taylor said this right should extend to parents that choose to place their child for adoption, and religious adoption agencies should have the right to only give children to homes of that religious denomination. Congressman William Timmons (R-SC) noted that Miracle Hill Ministries has not barred any families from being a foster parent because there are other agencies in the state that are nonreligious that prospective parents can go through to foster or adopt children. Timmons asked if there was any space for religious groups to play a role in charitable causes or act as a ward of the state to which Laser answered that they do, and should as long as they are not using discriminatory practices and have the child’s best interest in mind when making decisions.
Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III (D-MA) cosponsor of the legislation said that “RFRA has morphed from a shield of protection to a sword of infringement, allowing employers to undermine basic workplace conditions, organizations to stonewall child labor investigations, and health providers to deny needed care for victims of sexual abuse.” The Do No Harm Act is intended to limit the use of RFRA and protect citizens from having their rights infringed upon by the religious beliefs of others.