Congress to dip its toe into 'religious liberty' debate?

WASHINGTON -- Georgia critics of Gov. Nathan Deal's 'religious liberty' veto are licking their wounds and preparing for a new round of fighting in the legislature next year, but lawmakers on the federal level are only now beginning to consider whether to dip their toe into the debate.

The Hill reports there are plans in the works for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold a hearing next week on the First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA. The legislation would bar the federal government from penalizing people, groups or businesses that believe marriage should be between one man and one woman.

The hearing hasn't yet been formally announced, and a committee spokeswoman did not confirm the report.

But here's one intriguing detail, as reported by the LGBT newspaper The Washington Blade: one of the invited witnesses is Kelvin Cochran, the  former Atlanta fire chief. Cochran was fired by the city last year after publishing a religious book in which he called homosexuality a "perversion."

FADA was introduced last June, weeks before the landmark Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. More than two-thirds of the House Republican conference, including all 10 GOP congressmen from Georgia, have signed on as co-sponsors. Ditto for Johnny Isakson and David Perdue in the Senate.

But GOP leaders in both chambers have steered clear of scheduling any sort of formal consideration -- until now, perhaps.

Conversely, House Democrats forced a vote on a provision in May that would have essentially done the opposite of FADA. After it appeared on the verge of adoption, Republican leaders flexed their political muscle, leading to the provision's eventual defeat and a scene of chaos on the House floor.

Since then, of course, there's been a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead. The two parties remain deeply divided over whether the massacre should be classified as a hate crime, terrorist attack or both.

In her formal condemnation of FADA yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tied it to the Democrats' push for votes on gun control legislation:

“After such an historic act of hate, it is shameful that House Republicans would work to advance discrimination and bigotry than act to save lives now with commonsense gun violence prevention. As Republicans stand against the tide of history, House Democrats will continue to fight to pass the Equality Act to ensure that discrimination has no place anywhere in America.”

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are calling for leaders to advance FADA before Congress heads out of town in two weeks for an extended break ahead of the elections:

"Our nation was founded on religious liberty, and that liberty is now at risk. This is not a time for inaction," said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. 

Congress is very unlikely to meet that deadline even though, as Heritage Action pointed out, 23 of the 25 Republicans on the Oversight panel back the bill. The House is scheduled to be in session for just 19 days between July 12, when the panel is reportedly holding its hearing, and the election. The measure is virtually guaranteed to be met with a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...