The Do No Harm Act Can Restore True Religious Freedom

The Do No Harm Act would provide a much-needed update to religious freedom laws, ensuring that religious beliefs are not an excuse to violate nondiscrimination laws.

The Do No Harm Act Can Help us Restore True Religious Freedom
Protests during Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in 2014. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

At first glance, families looking to foster children, college students seeking birth control, LGBTQ people and government employees don’t appear to have much in common. But in recent years, those groups, among many others, have increasingly become victims of religiously-motivated discrimination. The Do No Harm Act could change that.

Recently reintroduced into the House of Representatives by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the Do No Harm Act would provide a much-needed update to religious freedom laws, ensuring that religious beliefs are not an excuse to violate nondiscrimination laws.

The Issue: Misuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

When the U.S.’s primary religious freedom law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed in 1993, it was supported by a broad coalition of organizations and was designed to protect religious minorities. A recent Supreme Court case, Employment Division v. Smith, had undermined those protections, and RFRA was meant to restore the heightened protections that allow people of minority faiths to safely and openly practice their religion. 

But in the years since, the religious right has seized on RFRA as a “get out of jail free card,” and began an organized campaign to use it to justify discrimination against women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and nontheists—in short, anyone who doesn’t conform to specific Christian nationalist beliefs.

In 2014, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case vastly increased RFRA’s power, ruling that large, closely-held corporations can use RFRA to evade the law requiring employers to cover contraception under their health insurance plans.

Then, the Trump administration seized the opportunity to exponentially expand legalized discrimination. They allowed any employer—or university—to deny contraception coverage based on religious or moral objections, and allowed organizations that receive federal funding to request exemptions from nondiscrimination laws. For example, foster care agencies that receive federal funding are now allowed to refuse potential foster parents simply because they are LGBTQ, atheist, or the “wrong” religion, denying children loving homes.

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Because RFRA has been interpreted so broadly by conservative justices and the Trump administration, it has gone far beyond its original intent and is being weaponized against many vulnerable groups. College students are being denied birth control and other reproductive health services. Medical professionals are refusing to treat trans people. Catholic and Jewish parents are being turned away from Protestant, taxpayer-funded foster care agencies.

The Solution: The Do No Harm Act

If the Do No Harm Act is passed, it would radically transform the U.S.’s ability to protect marginalized people in the work place, in school and in public life. It would amend RFRA to restore it to its original intent. RFRA would still be used to uphold the right to practice any religion or no religion. It would still shield religious minorities from discrimination. But the Do No Harm Act would ensure that religious beliefs are no longer weaponized against others.

The Act would prevent RFRA from being used to ignore nondiscrimination laws, evade child labor laws, refuse to provide government-funded services and deny access to health care. It would explicitly confirm that religious freedom is not an excuse to legalize discrimination.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign explains:

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and protecting people of faith from discrimination is entirely compatible with protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. The Do No Harm Act will preserve the core protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) while clarifying it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections.”

Take Action

Now is the time to take action and call on legislators to confirm that religious beliefs do not override secular laws. The Do No Harm Act provides a path forward that upholds our Constitutional rights and also ensures that RFRA won’t supersede nondiscrimination laws, access to reproductive health care and other federal protections for marginalized groups. According to Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State,

“RFRA, a statute designed as a shield to protect religious freedom, is now being used as a sword to cause harm. Under the Do No Harm Act, RFRA would still provide protections, like ensuring Sikh service members can wear articles of faith while in uniform. RFRA couldn’t be used, however, to allow a government-funded homeless shelter to turn away a transgender person or to allow a homeowners association to exclude non-Christians.

“Our country is strongest when we are all free to believe or not as we see fit, and to practice our faith—without hurting others.”

Urge your legislators to sign on to the Do No Harm Act so the U.S. can uphold religious freedom while also protecting the right to freedom from religion. 

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Katie Fleischer is a recent graduate of Smith College and a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series.