Religious Freedom Bill Creeps Forward in Congress

Kelsey Harkness /

A bill designed to protect individuals and nonprofit organizations from being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs may soon gain traction in the House of Representatives. After a year of inaction, the bill, called the First Amendment Defense Act, will get a hearing on July 12, The Daily Signal has learned.

The First Amendment Defense Act would protect a religious school, for example, from losing its tax-exempt status, and prevent a federal employee from being fired for holding traditional views about marriage. In part, the legislation reads:

[The] federal government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly served to such a marriage.

The First Amendment Defense Act would not apply to private businesses.

Currently, the bill has 171 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans except Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill. Although the bill is a relatively popular piece of legislation, it hasn’t advanced out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Twenty-three of the 25 Republicans on the committee are co-sponsors.

Conservatives view this legislation as a priority to address the conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.   

Dan Holler, whose team at Heritage Action for America is running a digital advocacy campaign urging support for the legislation, said that while a hearing is promising, it’s not the “real objective.”  

“Although it is encouraging the committee is moving forward with a hearing on this important legislation, the real objective is a committee markup in July,” Holler said. “Given the bill’s broad support, both on the committee and within the Republican conference as a whole, there is no reason for delay.”

A spokesman for the House committee confirmed the hearing but has not yet released its witness list. Although that list is not yet public, a spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom told The Daily Signal that former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is scheduled to testify.

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is scheduled to testify on July 12 before the House Oversight committee. (Mike Adams/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is scheduled to testify on July 12 before the House Oversight Committee. (Mike Adams/Zuma Press/Newscom)

After publishing a men’s devotional book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked,” which addresses marriage and sexuality from a Christian perspective, Cochran was suspended from his job. The city then conducted an investigation into whether Cochran had discriminated against any employees while serving as Atlanta fire chief. Although that investigation came up empty, the city moved forward and fired Cochran.

Cochran, along with his attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom, maintain that he was fired because of his Christian faith and beliefs.

Cochran is likely to testify that if Congress had enacted the First Amendment Defense Act, he would still have his job.

After being fired, Cochran filed his own federal lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, arguing that he was discriminated against based on his religious beliefs. That lawsuit is still pending before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and Atlanta.

Even with a hearing, enacting the First Amendment Defense Act will be an uphill battle for Republicans, with Democrats maintaining the “anti-LGBT” legislation allows state-sponsored discrimination.

“Once again, House Republicans are pursuing an extreme agenda that is designed to harm LGBT families under the guise of religious freedom. The right to believe is fundamental. The right to use taxpayer dollars to discriminate is not,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the liberal advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement last July after the bill was referred to committee. “Religious freedom is valued by all Americans, but this bill has nothing to do with the First Amendment.”