Sen. Mike Lee has reintroduced a controversial bill on Thursday that is focused on protecting religious freedom, but critics argue that it could lead to discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, unveiled a new version of the “First Amendment Defense Act,” that was initially introduced in 2015. It was not taken up by a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate at the time.
The bill aims to protect individuals and institutions from punitive action by the government, like revoking tax exempt status or withholding federal grants or benefits. These punitive actions could be levied for believing that marriage is between one man and one woman and for opposing sex outside of marriage.
“What an individual or organization believes about the traditional definition of marriage is not — and should never be — a part of the government’s decision-making process when distributing licenses, accreditations or grants,” Lee said in a statement.
The new bill, unlike the 2015 version, would also protect those who support any federal legal definition of marriage between two people, including same-sex marriage. Therefore, a pro-same-sex marriage group would be protected against discriminatory efforts from an administration that opposes same-sex marriage.
Conn Carroll, a spokesperson for Lee, said the change was made after critics talked about equality concerns in the 2015 bill. But even despite the important change, activist groups are still arguing that the bill could lead to unfair treatment.
“Any changes made to this bill can’t hide its true animus: to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people,” said Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans, a campaign that fights for LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.
“It appears to be a false attempt or a failed attempt to make this legislation constitutional by making it seem they’re not just targeting LGBTQ people,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.
Warbelo said that there are concerns that religious-based nonprofits or groups that receive funds from the government to run homeless shelters, food pantries or counseling services could potentially refuse service to same-sex couples and not be punished.
It’s not clear yet whether Republican leadership in the Senate or the Senate Judiciary Committee plan to take up the bill. The controversial legislation was quietly rolled out without much public fanfare from its 21 co-sponsors. Many of those co-sponsors didn’t put out news releases or tweets highlighting their support for the bill.
When Trump was running his campaign, he pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, though Lee’s office had not heard from the White House about this particular bill, Carroll said.
Do you think this bill will ever be up for a vote? Do you think it will make it to the president’s desk? Will Trump sign it?