House Panel Explores Religious Liberty Challenges

This week the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing, “The State of Religious Liberty in America.” Chaired by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), members of the subcommittee heard from a panel featuring Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom Director Kim Colby, Becket Senior Counsel Hannah Smith, and Rabbi David Saperstein.

Mattox called it “the utmost priority” of Congress to protect freedom. He called First Amendment liberty a “lynchpin” for other democratic values and noted, “Regardless of what one thinks about religion, we know that civil liberties travel together…. The loss of one signals the loss of others.”

In a similar spirit, Colby and Smith warned about government discrimination against people of faith. In her testimony, Colby warned, “Misuse of nondiscrimination policies to exclude religious persons from the public square threatens the pluralism at the heart of our free society.”

However, Saperstein, who had served as International Religious Freedom Ambassador in the Obama Administration, took aim at a number of priorities of many religious liberty advocates, including the First Amendment Defense Act, the Russell Amendment, reports of a draft religious freedom executive order, and the lifting of the Johnson Amendment’s free speech burden on churches and other ministries. He did, however, express hope for a cross-spectrum search “where common ground can be identified and where compromise can be fashioned that will maximize the religious freedom and civil rights protections of all parties involved.”

For his part, after pointing out the hostility to religious liberty of a number of Obama Administration policies, full committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) hoped the bipartisan spirit that led to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) would guide the day’s discussion. In a clear word of warning against the attempts by some to undermine RFRA, he said:

One key to RFRA’s success is that it was carefully crafted to avoid being outcome determinative. No carve-outs were added, which ensured that courts would have the ability to look at all the circumstances on a case-by-case basis, and make a decision particular to each case. By passing this law, Congress made it clear that the federal government must provide religious accommodations in our laws, and any laws passed that infringe upon religious freedom must be subject to the strictest scrutiny in our courts.

Video and testimony from this hearing are available here.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: February 17, 2017

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