Conservatives in the House and Senate are pressing for a quick vote on bicameral legislation that would protect faith-based organizations from losing tax-exempt status due to holding traditional views on marriage.
“Inaction in this matter would place a great number of organizations at risk,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said during a joint press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. “It’s sad that we even need such a bill, but the First Amendment is being ignored by many and forgotten by others.”
For many faith-based organizations, long-standing fears over tax-exempt status were confirmed earlier this year during Supreme Court oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges—in which the court later declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. When Justice Samuel Alito asked if universities that oppose same-sex marriage could lose their tax-exempt status, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said it is possible: “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.”
The First Amendment Defense Act would prohibit the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action” against a person—including for-profit and non-profit organizations—who holds differing views on marriage. The short bill specifically bars any altered tax treatment, disallowed charitable deductions, withheld grants or employment, reduced federal benefit, and denied federal accreditation, licensing, or certification based solely on a person’s marriage views.
“Americans are overwhelmingly united in their belief that religious freedom needs to be protected,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Thursday.
Lee, the primary Senate sponsor, has secured 34 Republican cosponsors. No Democrat has signed on to the legislation, but last week Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., told The Weekly Standard “religious organizations should not be taxed. … The last thing we want is the government getting into looking at the principles of each particular faith and judging it. That is wrong and shouldn’t occur.”
Lee said he has not yet talked to Baldwin, but he has “spoken to a number of [Democrats] who are at least sympathetic to what we’re trying to do.”
The House bill has amassed 130 cosponsors in less than a month, including one Democrat, Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski in May.
Republicans are pushing to get a vote on the legislation before Congress adjourns for its August recess on July 30. Republican Study Committee chairman Bill Flores, who organized Thursday’s press conference, told me the odds are “better than 50/50” that the bill will make it to the floor in July, but lawmakers are still working on several details: “Quality beats urgency every time.”
In the wake of last month’s Obergefell decision, some have called for religious organizations to lose their tax-exempt status if they don’t fall into line—including a well-circulated Time Magazine piece Republicans cited several times on Thursday. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, the bill’s primary House sponsor, noted that in his majority opinion Justice Anthony Kennedy guaranteed the right of dissenting Americans to maintain traditional views on marriage.
“We take Justice Kennedy at his word,” Labrador said.
— by J.C. Derrick