'Religious freedom' bill picks up momentum in House

Greg Nash

Pressure is mounting on House GOP leaders to call a vote this month on a religious-freedom bill banning the federal government from punishing churches, charities or private schools for actions in opposition to same-sex marriage.

The legislation, dubbed the First Amendment Defense Act, is gaining steam. Nearly 50 Republicans — including Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), Policy Chairman Luke Messer (Ind.) and Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores (Texas) — signed on just last week, pushing the total number of GOP co-sponsors to 115.

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Given the Supreme Court ruling last month legalizing same-sex marriage, many Republicans say they hope to pass the bill before they head home and face constituents at August town halls.

But there’s one possible hang-up: The bill’s author is Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which has caused fits for GOP leadership since its launch in January. Labrador, a Tea Party favorite, also is a one-time rival to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who controls the floor schedule.

In recent months, some conservative rebels have complained that leadership has retaliated against them by blocking votes on legislation they’ve written. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said his bill to name a courthouse in his district has been sidelined because of his frequent criticism of leadership.

But co-sponsors of Labrador's bill said they hoped the bill would receive a vote based on its merits, not based on who introduced it. Conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

“I don’t think they would ever make a judgment on critically important policy based on personalities,” said Rep. Trent FranksTrent FranksDems: House GOP just like Trump Supreme Court wrestles with corruption law House GOP reignites push for budget plan MORE (R-Ariz.), one of three Freedom Caucus members who were booted from the whip team last month for defying leadership on a procedural vote on trade.

“I think the bill should stand on its merits, and I believe the bill has its merits,” another co-sponsor, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), said in an interview.

So far, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a Catholic who opposes gay marriage, hasn’t weighed in on the bill. And McCarthy’s given no indication he’ll schedule a vote in the remaining three weeks before the House leaves town for the long August recess.

The bill has been referred to the Oversight and Government Reform and the Ways and Means committees, but neither panel has scheduled a markup.

There’s even a question of whether Labrador’s bill can get the 218 votes needed for passage. Only one Democrat, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, has co-sponsored the bill, which means Labrador will need to lean heavily on fellow Republicans, some of whom view him as politically toxic.

But in an interview, Labrador said he spoke directly to top Boehner aides and McCarthy on Friday, and they assured him they were not trying to derail his bill.

“They are not threatening me personally about my bill. They assured me legislation that is important will go to the floor, so I take them at their word,” Labrador told The Hill. “McCarthy assured me he’s not trying to get in the way of the bill.”

The message from Boehner aides was simple: Build a broad coalition first, then we’ll talk about a possible vote.

Labrador, however, believes the coalition is already in place. He has backing from influential Republicans from across the spectrum, from Heritage Action and from respected leadership allies. Among the co-sponsors: Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

The Freedom Caucus, the 40-plus member conservative group led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), formally voted last week to support Labrador’s legislation.

“I would hope it gets a vote,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is close to leadership and will likely sign on. “Members going home for August town halls would like to have had an opportunity to stake out their position on this. … There’s clearly quite a head of steam.”

Its backers say the bill would simply preserve the status quo, ensuring that federal agencies could not take action against individuals, organizations, nonprofits and other entities who act on their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.

For example, the government could not revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that refuse to perform same-sex weddings because of their religious beliefs. And it could not deny federal grants, contracts or licenses to any individual or institution that doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage.  

Concerns arose during the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage case, when Justice Samuel Alito quizzed Solicitor General Donald Verrilli on whether a religious school that held that marriage is between a man and a woman would be stripped of its nonprofit, tax-exempt status.

“It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that,” Verrilli replied.

For now, House Democrats, still celebrating their Supreme Court victory, haven’t taken aim at the Labrador bill. Several House Democrats on Friday declined to comment, saying they haven’t looked at the legislation yet.

Openly-gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told The Hill he hadn't yet studied the text of the legislation but suggested it could win broad support from the LGBT community, which has benefited from religious liberties in the past.

“There’s certainly room for clarification that no faith would ever be forced to perform or sanctify marriages that they don’t agree with, just as the Catholic faith isn’t required to marry people who have been divorced,” Polis said. “It’s up to every religion who they want to marry and some have been marrying same-sex couples for decades; others will never marry same-sex couples.

“Many faiths have been sanctifying same-sex marriages for decades, so we know the importance of religious freedom,” he added, “because it would have been terrible for the government to have stopped Reform Judaism or Unitarianism from holding same-sex marriages for the last four decades.”

But on Monday, Polis's office said the congressman had reviewed the legislation over the weekend and is now opposed, arguing that the bill is too broad in its scope.

"[T]his bill goes far beyond simply places of worship, extending to businesses and nonprofits, for example," Polis said in a statement. "The bill even contains a clause stating that it must be construed as broadly as possible by the courts and could be read to permit all businesses to use their views on marriage as justification to discriminate against LGBT Americans.”

--This report was updated at 12:40 p.m.