capitol longshotWritten by Don Byrd

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced last week he will introduce legislation that protects religious institutions that object to same-sex marriage. In 2013, Lee introduced the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act,” which prohibited the government from taking any “adverse action” against a person acting in accordance with their religious objections to same-sex marriage. An adverse action might be, for example, revoking a tax-exempt status, or denying a license, contract or tax benefit.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Lee’s new legislation is “expected” to be a version of that same bill, and is motivated by an exchange in the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments in the same-sex marriage cases earlier this year.

From the CSM report:

During the oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito asked Mr. Verrilli if colleges and universities opposed to same-sex marriage would lose their tax-exempt status in keeping with the 1983 Bob Jones University v. United States case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a university’s tax-exempt status could be revoked for racial discrimination. Verrilli responded, “You know, I ­­– I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I ­­– I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is – it is going to be an issue.” Lee says he found the comment “troubling.”

As BJC Executive Director Brent Walker wrote in last month’s Report From the Capital, however, the Bob Jones decision should not threaten the tax-exempt status of religious institutions opposed to same-sex marriage. From Walker’s column, “Exploring the church-state side of the same-sex marriage cases“:

[T]he Bob Jones decision should not threaten the tax-exempt status of houses of worship and other pervasively sectarian organizations. The Supreme Court was meticulously careful in Bob Jones to limit its decision to “religious schools — not … churches or other purely religious institutions; here the governmental interest is in denying public support to racial discrimination in education.”

The extent to which Bob Jones might apply to sexual orientation instead of race and to other religious affiliates besides education institutions is an issue yet to be resolved. But the tax-exempt status of churches should not be in jeopardy.

Of course, we don’t yet know the content of Senator Lee’s proposal. Once the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling is (probably) issued later this month, I suppose many legislative responses on the federal and state levels could quickly follow. Quick legislative responses, however, are often not Congress’ best moments. My wish for any impending religious freedom legislation: calm, thoughtful, thorough debate.