Democratic House Candidate: Keep Religious Freedom Out of Laws of the Land

April 18, 2016

by Shane Vander Hart


Photo credit: Ted Mielczarek via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Ted Mielczarek via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Monica Vernon, a Democrat candidate in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District race, discussed her opposition to the First Amendment Defense Act that is co-sponsored by Congressman Rod Blum (R-IA) whom she hopes to unseat. Her comments were in response to a question about her opinion of members of Congress who base their opposition and support of bills on their religious beliefs. Vernon was participating in an hour-long town hall at the Waterloo Center for the Arts on April 8th that was hosted by Americans for Democratic Action.

“One of the things that I found particularly upsetting was his interest in signing onto the so-called First Amendment Defense Act. I think this was a thinly veiled response of the far right to the Supreme Court justices’ wonderful decision, I think, on marriage equality,” Vernon said. “I heralded, I celebrated that thing, I thought you should marry who you love and you ought to be able to make those kinds of decisions and it should be the law of the land, and I am so thankful that it is.”

“This act would make it so that employers whether in for-profit situations or not-for-profit could fire people based on religion. So for example legal scholars who have looked at this have said that even a single woman who is pregnant could be fired for that. So just think of what all could happen if… I am absolutely opposed to that, and I think it goes back to separation of church and state. Yes we have freedom of religion, but you have got to keep that out of the laws of the land,” Vernon added.

First, a Supreme court decision is not the law of the land, it is a court opinion. Courts don’t make law.

Second, the First Amendment Defense Act does not allow discrimination. It is quite limited in scope and prevents the federal government from taking discriminatory action on individuals, non-profits and for-profit organizations because of their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual relations should only occur within that framework.

Here is the summary of H.R. 2802:

Prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.

Defines “discriminatory action” as any federal government action to discriminate against a person with such beliefs or convictions, including a federal government action to:

  • alter the federal tax treatment of, cause any tax, penalty, or payment to be assessed against, or deny, delay, or revoke certain tax exemptions of any such person;
  • disallow a deduction of any charitable contribution made to or by such person;
  • withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate, or otherwise deny any federal grant, contract, subcontract, cooperative agreement, loan, license, certification, accreditation, employment, or similar position or status from or to such person; or
  • withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate, or otherwise deny any benefit under a federal benefit program.

Requires the federal government to consider to be accredited, licensed, or certified for purposes of federal law any person who would be accredited, licensed, or certified for such purposes but for a determination that the person believes or acts in accordance with such a religious belief or moral conviction.

Permits a person to assert an actual or threatened violation of this Act as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding and to obtain compensatory damages or other appropriate relief against the federal government.

Authorizes the Attorney General to bring an action to enforce this Act against the Government Accountability Office or an establishment in the executive branch, other than the U.S. Postal Service or the Postal Regulatory Commission, that is not an executive department, military department, or government corporation.

Defines “person” as any person regardless of religious affiliation, including corporations and other entities regardless of for-profit or nonprofit status.

This act doesn’t nullify the Civil Rights Act, state non-discrimination law, or at-will employment laws some states have.

Again, all this act does is protect people of faith from federal discrimination because of their belief about marriage. This act addresses religious liberty concerns brought about by the Obergefell decision (and it wasn’t thinly veiled – it is plainly a response to the Supreme Court decision). Evangelical colleges for instance are uncertain how the decision will impact them:

As of now, it’s still largely unclear how Obergefell will be interpreted on the religious-liberty front—particularly when it comes to the federal funding that provides a large portion of these schools’ operating budgets. Some analysts are skeptical of predictions that the institutions tax-exempt status will change. Yet others say that schools will inevitably have to amend their policies to remain eligible for the funding. “It seems to me very likely that, in the coming years, schools and universities that accept public funds and support will be required—as a condition of those funds—to have nondiscrimination rules that forbid discrimination on sexual-orientation grounds,” said Rick Garnett, a professor who oversees the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame’s law school, in an email. “And, these rules will not distinguish between sexual-orientation discrimination and non-recognition of same-sex marriages.”

Third, Vernon brings up “separation of church and state” which can be read nowhere in the Constitution. What the Constitution does say is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” A member of Congress supporting a law or opposing it based on their religious convictions does not violate the establishment clause. They are simply making a judgment based on their worldview; everyone has a worldview.

The First Amendment Defense Act is not a violation of the establishment clause; all it states is that the federal government shall not take discriminatory action, something they are prohibited from doing because of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Lastly, freedom of religion has to be kept out of the laws of the land? So the Obergefell decision is the “law of the land,” but the First Amendment of the Constitution is not? It looks like somebody needs a civics refresher.

Shane Vander Hart is the online communications manager for American Principles Project, a frequent contributor to TruthInAmericanEducation.com, and the editor of Iowa-based CaffeinatedThoughts.com.


Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa native, is the online communications manager for the American Principles Project and a frequent contributor to TruthInAmericanEducation.com. Shane is also the Editor-in-Chief for CaffeinatedThoughts.com, a popular Christian conservative blog.

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