Houses passes Religious Liberty Act without civil rights safeguards

WASHINGTON -- The House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) July 15 and defeated a substitute bill that would have closed a dangerous loophole in RLPA that could threaten civil rights if not remedied in the Senate, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

"In its current form, this bill poses a grave threat to civil rights laws throughout the country," said HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch. "In an unconscionable vote, the U.S. House of Representatives has indicated its willingness to trample on the civil rights of women, people of color, people with disabilities and gay and lesbian Americans."

"While we support the intentions of the Religious Liberties Protection Act, it is shameful that the House rejected an alternative bill that would have protected civil rights," said HRC Political Director Winnie Stachelberg. "We will now shift our focus to the Senate to try to eliminate this loophole that might allow some people to use this bill to justify discrimination."

A substitute bill sponsored by Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., was defeated in the House 190 to 234 after an hour-long debate. The Nadler bill would have clarified RLPA by preventing an individual from using religious beliefs to undermine local or state civil rights statutes. Without the Nadler bill, which was necessary for HRC support, the Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., sponsored Religious Liberty Protection Act ñ a bill designed to safeguard religious expression -- passed the House 306 to 118.

RLPA would prohibit any state or local law from placing a "substantial burden" on a "person's religious exercise" even if the rule is not designed to infringe on a person's religious beliefs. The problem is, the bill currently does not clarify whether state and local anti-discrimination laws can be ignored by a person who claims that these laws violate his or her religious beliefs.

"We cannot support legislation that might threaten anti-discrimination statutes that protect gay and lesbian Americans in 11 states and 101 municipalities," said Stachelberg. "We are strong supporters of religious liberty and we will work hard in the Senate to help craft a bill that will address our concerns about this bill's potential effect on civil rights."

A recently enacted Texas measure signed into law by Gov. George W. Bush addressed this issue by making clear that an individual could not use a religious argument to ignore a state or local civil rights law.

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest national lesbian and gay political organization, with members throughout the country. It effectively lobbies Congress, provides campaign support and educates the public to ensure that lesbian and gay Americans can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.

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