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Sen. Lee says he will introduce legislation to protect religious organizations

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah addresses the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah addresses the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

By Deseret News Staff

WASHINGTON — Surrounded by appreciative Christian college leaders, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced Wednesday that he would soon introduce legislation to protect religious organizations from discrimination by the federal government that could arise because of their conscientious support of traditional marriage.

Lee introduced similar legislation in December 2013 that did not advance. But Wednesday's announcement was framed as a direct reaction to the issue of tax-exemption and religious belief raised before the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case that will likely be decided this month.

During oral argument of that case, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli indicated religious schools failing to accept same-sex marriage could lose their tax-exempt status were same-sex marriage recognized as a constitutional right.

“The response uttered by Gen. Verrilli was troubling, to say the very least,” said Lee, who had attended oral arguments in the case.

Lee's announcement, made in the Russell Senate Office Building, included few specifics about the bill. But he said it would protect religious institutions and individuals from retaliation for their conscientious beliefs about marriage.

Keith Wiebe of the American Association of Christian Schools described Verrilli's response as “chilling,” noting "the government is already using convictions about morality and marriage as disqualifying factors in consideration for some government benefits.”

In light of that concern, Wiebe and Jerry Johnson, president of National Religious Broadcasters, Samuel Oliver, president of Union University, and Travis Weber from the Family Research Council all joined Lee at the press event to express their support for this legislation.

“The government ought to not only promise that it is not going to force any church to perform a same-sex marriage against its own teachings,” said Lee, “but we ought to have a guarantee by the government to the American people … that the government won’t penalize any religious institution or any religious individual —based on a religious belief — that that individual or that institution believes that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. That’s why I wrote this legislation.”

Oliver said the implied threat against tax-exempt status of religious nonprofits, such as their schools, was a threat to their very existence.

“If the court finds a constitutional guarantee to same-sex marriage, would faith-based institutions be faced with a decision to deny their convictions or lose their tax-exempt status?” he asked. “Would our students be denied Pell Grants and other forms of direct-to-student government aid? The consequences could be catastrophic for private faith-based education.”

Oliver also suggested that the resources of state education systems would be severely strained were there a collapse of private religious education.

“To force students by default to attend secular schools is a form of mind control,” he said.

Wiebe, representing 800-plus Christian schools with more than 100,000 students, said his organization stands firmly behind Lee’s legislation.

“This act represents beliefs that are at the very core of who we are as a nation and as educational organizations,” he said.

Referencing the pilgrimage to America made by his great-grandparents in order to worship freely, Wiebe noted: “Our schools are strongly faith-based. We believe and teach that natural marriage is between one man and one woman, and we believe and teach that sexual relations are reserved only for such a marriage. These beliefs require the religious freedom to base hiring and policy decisions on these firmly held beliefs.”

Lee said the specific language of the bill will differ slightly from what was introduced in the last Congress. He indicated that there will be co-sponsors, but will wait until formal introduction to name them. Lee further indicated that Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, will be introducing similar legislation in the House.

“We need this legislation," Lee said. "We need to draw lines around the power of government, lines that are there to protect the people from the overpowering influence of government, an overpowering influence that can, from time-to-time, trample on religious freedom.”