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The First Amendment Defense Act is actually bad for religious freedom

WASHINGTON (RNS) The FADA is just the latest example of a troubling pattern of corruption of the noble concept of the freedom of religion and belief.

 Joe Capley-Alfano, left, and Frank Capley-Alfano of Oakland, Calif., stand in front of the Supreme Court on April 28, 2015, as justices hear arguments about same-sex marriage. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) As an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, I am occasionally asked to stand with a couple in front of their family and friends to officiate their wedding. Over the years, I’ve been honored to perform marriage ceremonies for dozens of couples, and had the pleasure of celebrating dozens more weddings of my relatives, friends and colleagues — some gay and others straight.

These couples all have one thing in common: They love each other and have committed to live their lives together. They all equally deserve the full legal rights, protections and benefits of marriage.

Which brings me to my day job: advocating for the fundamental American value of religious freedom. Recently, though, I’ve had to devote much of my time to fight efforts of those who seek to misuse religious liberty to assail some of the marriages I’ve celebrated — those of same-sex couples.

Right now my attention is focused on HR 2802, the deceptively named First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA. A committee in the U.S. House of Representatives is holding a hearing on this harmful bill today (July 12).

The legislation gives special rights to those with a “religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”

It would allow individuals, businesses, health care providers and taxpayer-funded social service providers to ignore laws that conflict with those religious beliefs.

The FADA greenlights discrimination against many of our friends, family and neighbors. The list of those who could face harm is long: unmarried couples, couples in which one person has been married before, single mothers and anyone who has sex outside of marriage. We all know, however, that the real target of the law is same-sex couples.

It’s the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty that shields religious bodies to make decisions about doctrine, including who can take part in important religious rituals or services, such as marriage. My denomination had the freedom to decide to recognize marriage equality, and I am free to perform marriages for a same-sex couple if asked. At the same time, of course, other denominations and faiths with different religious views on marriage are free to take a different position. But religious freedom does not mean that any religion can use the government to deny a couple the legal rights of marriage guaranteed by the Constitution.

Indeed, a federal judge in Mississippi recently struck down a state law that is very similar to the FADA because it violated the First Amendment. He explained that the government may not permit some to ignore laws at the “expense of other citizens.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, when vetoing a similar bill earlier this year, eloquently explained this principle: “I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives.”

It’s no surprise that there are efforts to undermine marriage equality in the name of religion. This fight isn’t new. For instance, a decade ago, I stood with more than 2,000 religious leaders to fight efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

The FADA is just the latest example of a troubling pattern of corruption of the noble concept of the freedom of religion and belief. As we make advances in LGBT rights, women’s equality and reproductive health, there are some who seek to undermine this progress. Under the guise of religious liberty, they want to deny health care, refuse to provide services, and disobey laws protecting our neighbors from discrimination and abuse. This is not real religious liberty.

To be sure, these efforts offend fairness, equality and justice — so I and other clergy members are again speaking out.

When I meet with a couple who’ve asked me to officiate their wedding, I sometimes offer a little advice. I’d like to offer a little advice to Congress. A verse from Proverbs cautions against fools repeating their folly. The FADA is just as troubling as measures we’ve seen before in Congress and state legislatures. The First Amendment Defense Act actually violates the First Amendment — and is an affront to religious freedom.

(The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

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