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Joe Kennedy Reintroduces LGBTQ Rights Bill

The Do No Harm Act would bar religious exemptions used to discriminate

Congressmember Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts participates in the Boston Pride Parade in 2017.
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Congressmember Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts still wants nothing to do with anyone’s religious carve-outs.

Democrat Kennedy, who serves as chair of the Congressional Trans Equality Task Force, is reintroducing legislation to prevent the use of religious liberty as a reason for discrimination on the basis of race, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Kennedy penned an op-ed in The Advocate on Thursday in which he stressed the importance of transgender rights and announced his plan to revive the Do No Harm Act alongside a pair of Democratic cosponsors, Congressmember Bobby Scott of Virginia and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is putting forth the bill in the upper chamber.

The bill aims to clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in a way that would maintain religious freedom without allowing it to be used for discrimination.

The bill, which has stalled each year since 2015, has gradually gained support in both chambers. It garnered a combined 36 cosponsors in the House of Representatives in 2015-16, before 173 congressmembers joined in on the bill in 2017-18. It was introduced in the Senate in 2017-18 for the first time, yielding 31 cosponsors.

The most recent edition of the bill stipulates that it would also render the RFRA inapplicable to federal laws pertaining to child labor, abuse, or exploitation; healthcare; the requirement of employers to provide wages, benefits, and leave; and collective organizing activity in workplaces.

The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ civil rights, took pains to emphasize that the new bill would not wipe out the core basic principles of the RFRA.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed to reinforce the right of religious minorities to practice their religion,” HRC government affairs director David Stacy said in a statement. “But some anti-equality activists have distorted and manipulated the legislation to try and justify discrimination against others. The Do No Harm Act will preserve the core protections of RFRA while clarifying it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections, including for the LGBTQ community.”

Kennedy, who was the first to introduce the bill in 2015-16, said in the February 28 op-ed that he felt driven to fight even harder for the rights of the community after watching President Donald Trump scrub references to LGBTQ rights from the White House website, the administration move to oppose protections for trans students facing discrimination in schools, census officials attempt to exclude questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the military impose a ban on transgender service members.

“This is why I fight,” he wrote. “Because a country that staked its claim on the radical notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must do better. Because the one enduring failure of American history is that those basic promises have too often been limited to straight white cisgender men. Because it is incumbent on those of us privileged enough to have our country’s protection to not just get comfortable with — but to demand — the sharing of that justice and dignity with all.”

Updated 6:05 pm, March 1, 2019
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