On Thursday, February 28, Senator Kamala Harris and Congressmen Joe Kennedy III and Bobby Scott reintroduced the Do No Harm Act, a top legislative priority for Interfaith Alliance. A broad coalition of nearly 80 faith-based and civil rights groups welcomed the bill as organizational supporters.
The Do No Harm Act clarifies the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to protect religious freedom while ensuring it cannot be misused as a weapon of discrimination. Originally passed in 1993, RFRA affirmed the free exercise rights of religious minorities, after two Native American men were fired for participating in a religious ceremony involving peyote. The bill passed Congress with nearly unanimous support and was signed into law by President Clinton.
But, in recent years, bad faith interpretations of RFRA have distorted its purpose to justify discrimination and grant individuals and businesses the authority to impose their religious beliefs on others. RFRA has been cited by those seeking exemptions to civil rights law and in efforts to deny health care coverage for employees, exclude minority groups from federally funded social services, and impede justice in child labor and abuse cases. These claims often hurt the very people RFRA was designed to protect, undermining the First Amendment in the process.
The Do No Harm Act would amend RFRA to clarify that no one can cite religious belief to undermine the Civil Rights Act, limit access to health care, or refuse service to minority populations.
Explaining the urgent need for this legislation, Senator Harris said, “The freedom to worship is one of our nation’s most fundamental rights….[But] the First Amendment guarantee should never be used to undermine other Americans’ civil rights or subject them to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Congressman Bobby Scott, Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said, “This bill would restore the original intent of RFRA and ensure that religious freedom is only used as a shield to protect individuals from discrimination, and not a sword to cut down the rights of others.”
“We cannot be equal or free if our government grants select Americans a license to discriminate against their neighbors under the guise of religious freedom,” Congressman Kennedy said. “By passing the Do No Harm Act, we can reestablish the sacred balance between religious liberty and the personal liberties of those who have too often had their civil rights bargained away.”