The 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates must be more deliberate in how they address faith in their respective platforms. I wrote about this in a recent blog post: Are We Ready for Religious Equity? A framework of Religious Equity would allow the Democratic candidates to escape the pitfalls of trying to pander to voters by playing inauthentic and often clumsy religious identity politics from their personal perspectives. By addressing Religious Equity, candidates can emphasize the role of government in protecting the right of all citizens to exercise their rights to both freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. More importantly, the language of Religious Equity would allow candidates to offer a rebuttal to weaponized messages of conservative faith without immediately alienating the populations that hold those views. This is particularly relevant now that there is legislation moving through the 116th Congress that speaks to this very issue.
Currently HR 1450 and S 593, both titled “Do No Harm Act[s]” are positioned to address an increasingly dangerous blurring of lines between religion, government and politics. The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been leveraged by multiple conservative entities to limit their obligation to equally serve the public based entirely on an exercise of “Religious Liberty.” The more prominent limitations have included blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people (wedding licenses, wedding cakes, etc.) and denying access to contraception. The most recent prominent case involved the Trump administration granting “exception to a federal rule barring discrimination in federally funded child welfare programs” so that “ child welfare agencies in South Carolina [could] turn away would-be foster and adoptive parents because they do not share the agency’s religious beliefs.”
I am a gay religious leader who believes unquestionably in the exclusive right of women to make choices about their own bodies and who believes that all children deserve a loving home regardless of what the family structure looks like. As a result, people may be surprised that I think Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Joseph Kennedy III have the initial message of the “Do No Harm Act” wrong. Although I think the spirit of both HR 1450 and S 593 as introduced are correct, the framework plays into the unhelpful narrative touted by conservatives that progressives (and particularly Democrats) hate religion, specifically conservative Christian religion. The name “Do No Harm…” correctly names the fact that weaponizing “religious liberty” in the name of a specific interpretation of Christian doctrine does tremendous harm to our society and denies civil rights to specific individuals. But it is also language that scolds and appears condescending. Because of what the bill is responding to, the words “Do No Harm…” imply that conservative religious belief itself is uniquely and ignorantly harmful. History tells us that all religion is capable of harm. The tragic reality is that determining whether the oppression of women or the exclusion of LGBTQ people within a faith is harmful (and yes, I believe they are) is actually not the job of Congress. The job of government is to protect rights and the right to expression of religion. Congress must make it clear that while there is no place for religious harm to be sanctioned by the government, there is also no place for government in a democracy to determine what is religiously right or wrong. I’m sure that HR 1450 and S 593 can accomplish the goal of brightening up the line between religion and politics, but congress has no hope of gaining serious buy-in or input from a mix of progressives and conservatives, people of faith and no faith if the bill is only framed from the perspective of progressive interpretations of harm.
I encourage Sen. Harris and Rep. Kennedy to consider their own language from what they have currently drafted in the bills in Section 2, Sense of Congress:
(3) the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 12 1993 should not be interpreted to authorize an exemption for one party that permits discrimination against others, including persons who do not belong to the religion or adhere to the beliefs of that party.
This is the language of equity and naming the bill as such (ex. “Religious Equity Act”) could potentially garner much more support and invite more nuance. After all, like it or not, the goal of legislation is ultimately to serve and protect all Americans, even the ones we most adamantly disagree with.