House Holds Hearing on So-Called “Religious Liberty” with Anti-LGBTQ Witnesses

Only eight weeks into the 115th Congress, House Republicans are already pushing for special licenses to discriminate against LGBTQ people under the guise of religion.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing on “the State of Religious Liberty in America.” (“Religious liberty” is often code for allowing people to pick and choose which laws they will follow in order to discriminate against LGBTQ people.) The Republican majority’s witnesses included staff members of three anti-LGBTQ organizations: Kim Colby, Director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom; Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and Casey Mattox, Senior Counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom. The Democratic minority’s lone witness was Rabbi David Saperstein, former Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

From the beginning of the hearing, it was clear that the Republicans and their witnesses would be using this hearing as an opportunity to, among other things, push for and defend policies that give people a license to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. Subcommittee Chairman Steve King (R-IA), along with Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Representatives Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Trent Franks (R-AZ), and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), pressed the witnesses and spoke about policies that would discriminate against minorities, including LGBTQ people. King specifically began his questioning of one of the Republican majority’s witnesses to spark a conversation in support of allowing businesses to use religion as an excuse to refuse service to LGBTQ people.

In their testimony and at the hearing, Republican witnesses called on Congress to pass the discriminatory First Amendment Defense Act and admonished restrictions on religious organizations from receiving public funds. They also called on President Trump to sign a “religious freedom’ executive order—which, if the recently leaked draft executive order is any indication, would target the LGBTQ community.

Thankfully, Subcommittee Ranking Member Steve Cohen (D-TN), along with Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Rabbi David Saperstein, questioned the constitutionality of the draft executive order. They also discussed how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), while originally intended to protect the rights of minority religions, has been distorted to be used as a blank check to discriminate or to impose their religious beliefs on others. That is why several civil rights groups, including HRC, support amending RFRA to make clear that it was never meant to be a tool for discrimination.

The Democratic line of questions and Rabbi Saperstein’s responses illustrated a clear understanding that religious liberty can be protected while also prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people. However, the Republican line of questions and the majority witnesses’ responses made clear that opponents of LGBTQ equality will continue to push their discriminatory agenda throughout the 115th Congress.

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