Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) doesn’t really understand why congressional Republicans are again focusing their limited time on lightning-rod social issues, but if they’re going to force the debate, he’s hoping to soften any blowback.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, Republicans — 124 of them in the House and 34 in the Senate — want legislation passed ensuring the federal government cannot discriminate against anyone who actively opposes same-sex marriage, citing “a religious or moral conviction.” Specifically, they support a measure saying those entities cannot have their tax-exempt status revoked.
There is broad agreement, even reportedly among marriage equality advocates, such as Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is openly gay, that it would be fine to clarify in legislation that places of worship don’t have to perform same-sex weddings.
But the legislation being pushed by some congressional Republicans — dubbed the First Amendment Defense Act — is much broader than that, resembling the statute that sparked controversy in Indiana.
If the bill comes to the floor, Dent has prepared an amendment to limit the language and tack on enhanced nondiscrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“I understand the concerns, I think everybody agrees religious institutions should be protected to practice their faith as they see fit, but I’m concerned there are some who want to take the Supreme Court decision and open up a new front,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t think anybody on my side of the aisle wants to see the Indiana debacle turn into a national nightmare.”
The moderate Republican’s alternative maintains some protections for religious nonprofit organizations and “sense of Congress” language that the Supreme Court’s decision not “substantially burden the free exercise of religion.”
But the bill would also include workplace and housing nondiscrimination language to protect LGBT individuals from losing their jobs or being denied a home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Dent stood up during a House GOP caucus meeting this week and told his colleagues that the debates on the Confederate flag alienated African Americans, the “incendiary rhetoric” from Donald Trump alienated Latinos, and now the same-sex marriage debate could alienate the LGBT community.
“I can’t imagine any serious presidential candidate wants to have these debates … that will only harm the presidential nominee going into a general election,” he said.
The proponents of the underlying religious freedom bill are aware of Dent’s plan. The office of Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), the bill’s House sponsor, declined to comment on the possible amendments, and said the congressman is still pushing for his bill to come to the floor before August.
At a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked whether he wants to have the debate and whether he intends to bring it up.
“You know, the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage raises a lot of other questions,” he said. “And a number of members have — have concerns about issues that it raises and how they might be addressed. But no decision has been made on — on how best to address these.”