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Washington • Congressional Republicans and Democrats clashed Tuesday over legislation the GOP described as upholding religious freedom and Democrats insisted was discriminatory, with no sign of consensus.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a three-hour hearing to consider the First Amendment Defense Act, a measure to "prohibit the federal government from taking discriminatory action" against a person whose religious beliefs or moral convictions define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The legislation has 171 co-sponsors in the House, but faces opposition from Democrats and outside groups who argue it will result in more discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community as well as single-parent families.
"Protecting the sacred right to freely exercise your religion is the First Amendment to the Constitution for a reason - it has been and still is fundamental to the foundation of our nation," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the committee.
Foes of the bill bemoaned the timing of the hearing on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and injured 53.
"With everything going on in this country right now, these horrific shootings of gay people, black people, police officers, what we should be doing is coming together as a nation, not tearing each other apart, which is exactly what this bill does," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the committee. "To say this hearing is politically tone-deaf is the understatement of the year."
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, testified as a witness opposing the bill and asked, "What could ever justify such a discriminatory act?"
"As important as it is that same-sex couples like John (his late partner) and I have the right to obtain a civil marriage license in any state of the country," Obergefell said, "it is also critically important that this constitutional right is not undermined by proposals like this legislation that subject loving couples like me and John, and other LGBT people to discrimination."
Former Chief of the Atlanta Fire Department Kelvin Cochran, who was terminated from his position because of his opposition to same-sex marriage, advocated for the bill, saying it would have protected his job.
"Equal rights, true tolerance means that, regardless of your position on marriage, you should be able to peacefully live out your beliefs and not suffer discrimination at the hands of the government," Cochran said.
Despite the ideological disagreements, the main focus of the hearing became the language used in the legislation and whether or not the bill would undermine the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act or other pre-existing equality acts.
"We have had very robust conversations that disagree. What my concern is is that we are at times missing each other on misinformation," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said.