Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s bill would draw line between church and state

The Utah State Capitol is shown Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Utah’s legislative session starts Monday after several busy months that saw the resignation and replacement of the state’s attorney general and the surprise legalization of gay marriage for 17 days. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

By Mallory Jesperson

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, introduced a new piece of legislation in Congress that, if passed, would protect institutions from religious discrimination and ensure that these establishments will not lose their tax-exempt status for refusing to perform same-sex ceremonies in support of traditional marriage.

As many same-sex couples in Utah rushed to the altar this December, after a U.S. judge declared the ban on same-sex nuptials illegal, many officials began to fear the detrimental ramifications to various religious institutions.

In response to this ruling, Lee created the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act” and introduced it in the Senate. A similar bill has been proposed in the Utah Legislature.

After introducing this piece of legislation Lee, a Utah native and BYU alum, issued a news release in which he said, “This bill protects the rights of individuals and organizations from religious discrimination by the federal government.”

Lee is the main proponent of this piece of legislation and, as such, has been interviewed by numerous news establishments, and has even made appearances on television to discuss the legislation.

The focus of this bill is to block the federal government from using its executive power to take away tax exemption privileges from religious institutions in an effort to force churches to perform these marriages. This bill’s creation is a direct effort to strengthen the separation between church and state, according to Lee.

During his appearance on The Blaze TV, Lee said, “The government should have no say in what an individual or what a church might believe regarding the sanctity of marriage. … This is a decision to be made without the influence of government, particularly without the influence of the federal government. And so that’s what we’re trying to do here — keep the federal government at bay, and out of that decision-making process.”

This effort to protect religious rights has gained momentum and support from many Republicans throughout the country.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.,  said on the Blaze, “Religious freedom is a foundational principle to our great nation, and it’s something that Louisianians and folks across the country cherish — including the millions of Americans, like myself, who support traditional marriage. But, for a number of reasons, this basic freedom is under attack by the current administration. This bill will protect groups from administrative attacks, such as additional hurdles with taxes or obtaining federal grants or contracts.”

However, opponents of this bill believe that by protecting religious institutions, they would be, in turn, allowing them to continue to discriminate against a whole community of persons.

Think Progress, a Liberal think-tank, reports that this bill’s effect “could allow businesses to discriminate against employees with a same-sex spouse, government officials to discriminate against same-sex couples filing their taxes jointly or religiously affiliated hospitals discriminating against patients with same-sex spouses.”

The “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act” would not only protect religious institutions from losing their tax-exemption status but would also include discretion upon providing employee benefit plans; as well as ensuring that no persons are excluded from receiving federal grants, licenses, loans employment etc. based on sexual orientation.

The bill states in section two, entitled, “Findings,” “(3) Protecting religious freedom from Government intrusion is a Government interest of the highest order. Legislatively enacted measures advance this interest by remedying, deterring, and preventing Government interference with religious exercise in a way that complements the protections mandated by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

One issue accompanying the introduction of this proposed bill is that by guarding against religious discrimination, Congress may be allowing the ushering in of discrimination against same-sex couples.

This new piece of legislation already has 11 co-sponsors and is a companion bill to an act that was already proposed in September by members of Utah’s House of Representatives.

Not only does this piece of legislation have support from various members of the Senate, but it is fully endorsed by groups such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Concerned Women Form America, and the Liberty Counsel Action.

This bill has merely been introduced, and has yet been passed through the Senate or the House.

To read the full text of this piece of legislation, or to track the progress of its future, visit the United States Legislative Information website at http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/senate-bill/1808.

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