Scott, Kennedy Introduce Amendment to Religious Freedom Restoration Act

WASHINGTON – Joined by leaders from the civil rights, social justice and faith communities, Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03), Ranking Member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-04) today introduced legislation to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The Do No Harm Act would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. It comes in response to continued efforts across the country to cite religious belief as grounds to undermine Civil Rights Act protections, limit access to healthcare, and refuse service to minority populations.

Specifically, the Do No Harm Act would limit 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 RFRA in 1993, the goal was to protect religious freedom for minority groups by requiring the government to demonstrate a compelling interest and to use a policy that was the least restrictive means,” said Congressman Bobby Scott. “Since then, the law has been misconstrued as allowing the sincerely-held religious beliefs of one person to trump the civil rights of others. Civil rights are a compelling government interest, and we cannot allow so-called ‘religious freedom,’ ‘religious liberty’ or ‘faith-based initiatives’ to invalidate the very laws designed to correct the generations of injustices inflicted on minorities. The Do No Harm Act restores the original intent of RFRA.”

The right of Americans to freely and fully express our faith is sacred in this country,” said Congressman Joe Kennedy III. “But in order to guarantee that liberty for every citizen, our system must ensure that my religious freedom does not infringe on yours or do you harm. While not its original intent, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has become a vehicle for those seeking to impose their beliefs on others or claim that the tenants of their faith justify discrimination. The Do No Harm Act will restore the balance between our right to religious freedom and our promise of equal protection under law.”

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a Supreme Court case undermining the rights of religious minorities. But in recent years, the misapplication of RFRA has been used to deny health care coverage for employees, claim exemptions to civil rights law, and complicate justice in child labor and abuse cases. 

 “Religious liberty is a core American value, enshrined in our Constitution and deserving of protection,” said Carmel Martin, Executive Vice President of Policy at the Center for American Progress. “When passed in 1993, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA) offered a necessary corrective to the 1990 Smith decision that had stripped away the constitutionally-protected right to free exercise of religion. However, recent lawsuits and federal court decisions, such as the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision, have created an overly broad interpretation of the law and have allowed RFRA to be used in ways that actually restrict religious liberty by imposing beliefs on others and occasioning meaningful harm to third parties.  Congress should act to ensure that RFRA is not inappropriately used to violate the rights of others.”

“Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of this nation, and the Do No Harm Act would ensure that this principle isn’t twisted into a license to discriminate,” said Wade Henderson, President & CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “As states across the country attempt to codify discrimination into law, it’s especially important that the federal government once again declare that there can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity.”

“Americans United has always fought for the fundamental American value of religious freedom,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “In 1993, we joined conservatives and progressives to support the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because we believed it would protect real religious liberty, especially for those of minority faiths. We are troubled, however, that over the years, RFRA has been misconstrued and exploited to justify discrimination and to deny others their rights. That is why today we support the Do No Harm Act because it preserves RFRA’s power to protect religious liberty but also clarifies that RFRA may not be used to harm others.”

“From Indiana to North Carolina; from Georgia to Mississippi, a number of right wing extremist legislators have tried to obfuscate the intent of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 to address a series of legal cases which together chiseled away the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to safeguard traditional Native Americans and other religious minorities in our country,”  said Mr. Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy. “Indeed, the implementation of these new laws protect only the bigoted biases of those who wish to discriminate against people in the name of their so-called “religious beliefs” who simply want to do business fairly and justly, or use public facilities.  The NAACP stands solidly with Congressman Kennedy and Congressman Scott and others in calling for immediate action on this important legislation.” 

“Religious freedom gives us the right to our beliefs, but not to harm others,” said Louise Melling, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The Do No Harm Act would place much needed limitations on RFRA, so that it can be used as a shield for religious exercise but no longer as a sword. With the Do No Harm Act, RFRA could no longer be invoked to justify discrimination, denial of health care, or other harms. We at the ACLU are proud to stand in support of this legislation.”

“Religious freedom is a core American value. However, religious freedom claims should never be used as a guise for unfair and unjust treatment that undercut other people's fundamental rights,” said David Stacy, Government Affairs Director of the Human Rights Campaign. “We commend Representatives Kennedy and Scott for introducing this critically important legislation that will preserve the core protections of the federal RFRA, while ensuring that it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

“The National Women’s Law Center did not support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because of concerns about how it could be misused and result in harm to women,” said Gretchen Borchelt, Vice President of Reproductive Rights and Health at the National Women’s Law Center. “Unfortunately, that fear has become a reality. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision permitted bosses to deny women critical birth control coverage, and efforts to use RFRA as a justification to discriminate have gained new life since that decision.  There have been attempts to use RFRA to challenge laws that protect women, LGBTQ individuals, and students from discrimination; protect employees by allowing them to unionize; promote public health by requiring vaccinations; and require pharmacies to fill lawful prescriptions. That is why the National Women’s Law Center supports the Do No Harm Act. The Do No Harm Act ensures that RFRA cannot be used to undermine basic civil rights and liberties,  and stands for the principle that religion should never be used to discriminate or to harm others.”

“Increasingly, religion is being used to justify discrimination against women and families, in health care and in the workplace,” said Debra L. Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families.  “We commend Representatives Joe Kennedy and Bobby Scott for introducing the Do No Harm Act and leading efforts to make clear that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s protections of the exercise of religion cannot be used to deny women access to reproductive health care or other services, or undermine civil rights protections.”

"I am delighted to offer my strong support for the Do No Harm Act," said Congressman David N. Cicilline (RI-1), Co-Chair of the Equality Caucus. "No religious tradition has as a central tenet or core belief that you should deny services to someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Do No Harm Act makes clear that religion can never be used as a legal justification for discrimination against LGBT individuals." The House of Representative LGBT Equality Caucus has endorsed the Do No Harm Act.

The legislation has received support from the following advocacy and expert organizations: AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Bend the Arc, Catholics for Choice, Center for American Progress, Center for Reproductive Rights, Congressional Equality Caucus, Disciples Justice Action Network, Equal Partners in Faith, Equality Federation, Family Equality Council, Friends Committee on National Legislation, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Guttmacher Institute, Hindu American Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, Interfaith Alliance, Lambda Legal, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, NARAL, National Abortion Federation, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National LGBTQ Task Force, National Partnership for Women and Families, National Women’s Law Center, Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays, Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Health Technologies Project, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US, Trevor Project, and Unitarian Universalist Association.

For a full list of quotes from each supporting organization, please click here.

For full text of the Do No Harm Act please click here.


Press Contact

Kiara Pesante (Scott) – 202-226-0853

Emily Kaufman (Kennedy) – 202-225-5931