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Policy: Law

Mike Lee authors bill to prevent Obama from pushing churches to support gay marriage

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Beltway Confidential,Joel Gehrke,Gay Marriage,First Amendment,Mike Lee,Justice Department,Religion,Law,David Vitter

Sen. Mike Lee has authored a bill to prevent President Obama from using his executive power to push churches and other nonprofit groups to recognize gay marriage.

"It is concerning that we have people in this administration who think that religious liberties are just not that big of a deal," the Utah Republican told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.

President Obama promised to respect religious liberty in his statement on the Supreme Court's June decision to overturn parts of the Defense of Marriage Act in Windsor v. United States.

"How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions," Obama said.

Lee thinks federal officials could work around that promise by trying to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that support traditional marriage.

"We need not just statements, but we need legislation to protect religious liberty from this kind of potential threat," he said during the interview.

To that end, the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act would ban federal officials from attempting to deprive nonprofit groups (including churches) of benefits currently provided by the government. The bill is a companion piece to House legislation offered by a bipartisan group of legislators led by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

“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," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said of the bill. "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.”

Vitter is an original co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. Lee plans to introduce the bill Wednesday.

"What I would like to do is make sure that we go out of our way to protect churches from adverse action that could be taken against them as a result of their doctrinal views of the definition of marriage," the Utah senator said.

Lee said some Democratic lawmakers have expressed a willingness to review the bill, but none have endorsed it yet.

"Nearly every member of Congress on both ends of the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle, will at least purport to be a strong supporter of religious liberty, and this should be an uncontroversial position to take," he said. "I don't think anyone believes that the federal government ought to be making religious doctrinal decisions on behalf of churches and other religious institutions."

(And yet, all nine Supreme Court justices reminded Obama's Justice Department that "requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so ... interferes with the internal governance of the church." Lee described Justice's argument as "an absolutely absurd position.")

Even if the Democratic Senate majority opposes the bill, the legislation could have some political significance for the Republicans who have endorsed it already. For instance, Roberts has a primary challenge in the 2014 midterm elections. Vitter is expected to run for governor of his state.

“Vitter is very, very close to announcing he is going to run,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., told the Shreveport-area radio station KEEL 710-AM. ”I'm just saying that I know him personally. He hasn't said anything to me personally, but just gauging the signals he's putting out there, he's all but announced that he's running.”

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