First Amendment Defense Act Gets House Hearing

Last year, as the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that would lead to a judicial fiat re-defining marriage in the United States, one particularly shocking statement came from U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who told the Justices that tax treatment of religious organizations upholding biblical marriage is "certainly going to be an issue." This week, in an attempt to ensure that the federal government does not discriminate against citizens who sincerely believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee held a hearing on a legislative remedy, the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). This bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), is written to be a shield against attempts by federal government agents to use tax treatment, licensing, grants, and the like to coerce or discriminate against individuals or organizations that merely wish to live in light of their religious convictions on marriage and sexuality.

The hearing witness whose story clearly exemplified the need for such a bill was former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. Despite a long and stellar record, he was fired from his post by the City of Atlanta after government officials found out that he had written in favor of biblical marriage and sexuality in a private devotional book. In his testimony, Chief Cochran said:

The actions by the City of Atlanta do not reflect American values. The real test of liberty is what happens when citizens disagree on important issues. By terminating me because of my beliefs, the City failed to reflect the true tolerance and diversity that has always set America apart. Instead, the City labeled as outcasts the many diverse people - from Christians to Jews to Muslims - who express their faith's longstanding teachings on marriage.

Cochran, who also was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009 to serve as U.S. Fire Administrator, noted during the hearing that he was concerned he could have been discriminated against in the federal government as well. In his testimony, he asserted that FADA will “ensure that no federal employee will face the same sort of unjust government punishment that I endured.”

Democrats, and the witnesses they called, appeared generally uneasy with Chief Cochran’s firing. However, it is notable that one panelist, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) seemed to think that believers in biblical marriage need not apply to some government agencies like the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While House members did not hone in on this assertion, another panelist, Dr. Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute, did not let it escape unchallenged. In his follow-up review of the hearing, Dr. Franck recounted:

There are surely, I said, people working today at EEOC and at Justice’s Civil Rights Division who disagree with the Obergefell ruling and believe marriage is rightly understood as the conjugal union of a man and a woman. They can surely continue to enforce Americans’ legal rights as their agency duties require. Does Barney Frank really want them to lose their jobs? True to form, the redoubtable former congressman doubled down. Yes. Yes, they should be sacked from their positions, he said. And thus the hearing ended.

Kristin Waggoner of NRB member Alliance Defending Freedom also testified at the hearing. She cited numerous examples of why FADA is needed and corrected several misstatements about the effects of the bill made by its opponents. Moreover, in her testimony, she declared, “We are witnessing nothing less than the beginning of an ideological cleansing of public life in America. Congress must act to stop the marginalization of many Americans by passing the First Amendment Defense Act.

  • Full testimony and video from this hearing are available here.
  • Find NRB’s previous letter of support for FADA after its original introduction last year.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: July 15, 2016

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