Media outlets are mischaracterizing legislation that licenses anti-LGBT discrimination as a bill that protects fundamental religious and personal freedoms.
Under the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act (MARFA), drafted by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and co-sponsored by 60 House members, the federal government could not take any "adverse action" against individuals who oppose same-sex marriage or premarital sex on religious grounds. The legislation effectively subsidizes anti-gay discrimination. In a statement, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) noted that religious liberty enjoys robust constitutional and statutory protection, but that MARFA would radically reinterpret the concept to allow federal employees and recipients of federal funds to deny services to LGBT people:
"Every American understands the importance of protecting the rights of people of faith to hold and express their beliefs, including about the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," said Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Legislative Director Allison Herwitt. "But our Constitution and laws already strongly safeguard that liberty. The purpose of the legislation introduced today is simply to let federal employees, contractors and grantees refuse to do their jobs or fulfill the terms of their taxpayer-funded contracts because they have a particular religious view about certain lawfully-married couples - and then to sue the federal government for damages if they don't get their way."
For example, if passed, the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act would permit a federal worker processing tax returns, approving visa applications or reviewing Social Security applications to walk away from their responsibilities whenever a same-sex couple's paperwork appeared on his or her desk. It would also allow a federally-funded homeless shelter or substance abuse treatment program to turn away LGBT people. Despite the cosponsors claims, there is no evidence that federal programs have or would discriminate against individuals because of their religious beliefs about marriage. Protections against discrimination based on religious belief are explicitly and robustly provided under the First Amendment and federal nondiscrimination statutes. [emphasis added]
Freedom to Marry added that the legislation would also permit businesses to deny leave to employees who wished to care for a same-sex spouse. The libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog argued that MARFA is likely unconstitutional, as it privileges religious views in opposition to same-sex marriage and pre-marital sex over other religious views - a stark violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Media coverage of MARFA has either downplayed or wholly ignored the constitutional and discrimination concerns the bill raises, while legitimizing the baseless fear that the federal government could soon retaliate against opponents of marriage equality. The Washington Post described the bill as a "proposal that would protect religious institutions and other nonprofit groups that don't recognize same-sex marriages from potential discrimination by the Internal Revenue Service." Similarly, The Hill framed MARFA as "a proposal aimed at protecting conservative groups" after the Supreme Court's ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
There is no documented instance of the IRS or any other federal agency threatening a group because of its religious convictions about marriage equality. There are, however, numerous examples of anti-LGBT discrimination by private institutions - an issue neither the Post nor The Hill saw fit to examine.
Predictably, right-wing media wholeheartedly embraced MARFA. Apparently oblivious to the discrimination MARFA would sanction, The Daily Caller dubbed the bill a piece of "anti-discrimination legislation" that would ensure "tolerance for people who do not believe in same-sex marriage."
The Washington Times fed fears of a tyrannical government looking to punish religious opponents of homosexuality, saying that the bill would "protect the religious freedom of individuals, institutions and businesses that are increasingly being punished or harassed for their beliefs on marriage." As examples of such punishment, the Times cited the recent closing of an Oregon bakery whose owners refused to provide a cake to a same-sex couple, a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling against a photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, and a California bill that would have stripped the Boy Scouts' tax-exempt status if they did not admit gay youth or adults.
None of the Times' examples withstand scrutiny. The Oregon bakery closed after a private boycott - not as a result of government action. Same-sex marriages were not performed in New Mexico at the time of the high court's ruling there. It was an anti-discrimination law - not a same-sex marriage law - that the court used to find the photographer's actions unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the California legislation on the Boy Scouts' tax exemption has been shelved.
As the push for MARFA intensifies, it would be irresponsible for media outlets to continue ignoring the legislation's severe repercussions for LGBT people and to keep fanning baseless fears about nonexistent threats to religious liberty. A national poll released by HRC and Third Way in July found that seven in 10 Americans agree that government employees should respect the law and treat all people equally. For media to allow pro-discrimination arguments to shape its coverage is a public disservice.