U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Backs Anti-gay Marriage Religious Freedom Bill

The US Conference Of Catholic Bishops has given its backing to the First Amendment Defense Act. Donald and Melania Trump are pictured meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2017. EVAN VUCCI/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has given its backing to a controversial bill that human rights advocates warn could be used to discriminate against same-sex couples, single parents and unmarried couples.

A group of 22 Republican senators, led by Mike Lee of Utah and including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, reintroduced the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) in early March.

The proposed law, which was first presented in 2015, protects individuals and institutions from punishment if they act on the belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, as well as for opposing sex outside of marriage. On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump stated that he would sign a version of the bill.

The bill states that the Federal Government "shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person speaks, or acts, in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as a union of one man and one woman, or two individuals as recognized under Federal law, or that sexual relations outside marriage are improper."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to FADA by releasing a statement urging Congress to pass it.

"We welcome and applaud the recent reintroduction of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). The USCCB has been vocal in support of the legislation since its inception," the statement said.

"FADA is a modest and important measure that protects the rights of faith-based organizations and people of all faiths and of no faith who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

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"For example, in a pluralistic society, faith-based charitable agencies and schools should not be excluded from participation in public life by loss of licenses, accreditation, or tax-exempt status because they hold reasonable views on marriage that differ from the federal government's view."

It added: "The leadership of the Catholic Church will continue to promote and protect the natural truth of marriage as foundational to the common good. The Church will also continue to stand for the ability of all to exercise their religious beliefs and moral convictions in public life without fear of government discrimination."

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of LGBT rights group GLAAD, said in a statement at the time the bill was released: "America was founded on the freedom of religion and this shared value continues to be critical to our nation's success, but it does not give people the right to impose their beliefs on others, to harm others, or to discriminate."

"While President Trump and the Senate Republicans behind this bill are pushing for discriminatory legislation, the LGBTQ community will not be silent and continue to protect the hardworking LGBTQ American families who would be placed in direct harm by this unjust bill."

The advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, meanwhile, warned that the bill "seeks to permit discrimination by individuals, many businesses, and non-profit organizations against same-sex couples, single parents and unmarried couples."

David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign government affairs director said in a statement: "The First Amendment Defense Act is harmful legislation that would legalize state-sanctioned discrimination and undermine key civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.

"Supporters of this legislation are using religious liberty as a sword to hurt LGBTQ families rather than staying true to our long tradition of it serving as a shield to protect religious expression from government overreach."

The bill comes after research by the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute showed that 61% of Americans oppose allowing small business owners to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian people on the grounds of their religious beliefs.