When Congress returns from break, what should be on their agenda for passage? AHA’s Legislative Associate Matthew Bulger examines the top important pieces of legislation for our elected leaders to pass immediately, including support for humanist chaplains in the military.
August is here, which means that Congress is taking a month-long recess. While this annual summer recess always provokes the same tired stories that Congress is choosing to relax instead of work, it’s actually a very important time for Representatives and Senators because it allows them to meet with their constituents and do some much needed outreach in their district or state. This recess also gives government officials a chance to think about upcoming legislation and how they intend to vote on critical bills that will impact millions of people across the nation and around the world.
Some of the most meaningful action Congress can take in the remainder of the year has to do with discrimination, as there are bills that would end government discrimination against certain communities, allow humanist chaplains in the military, and make it harder for employers to discriminate against groups that have historically been subjected to unequal treatment in the workforce.
The first is a bill with bipartisan support, which is a bit of a rarity in today’s hyper-partisan national political scene. The bill I’m referring to is the Respect for Marriage Act, which has 166 co-sponsors in the House and 42 cosponsors in the Senate and will repeal the remaining sections of the Defense of Marriage Act that weren’t struck down by the Supreme Court in the recent decision Windsor v. United States case. As the AHA’s executive director Roy Speckhardt points out in a recent article for the Huffington Post, “These sections mainly deal with the ability of a state government to deny recognition of same-sex marriages that originate in other states. The result, which cannot be allowed to stand, is that some Americans will enjoy federal benefits for their marriage while others will not just because they moved to a state that does not recognize their marriage.”
Obviously, all married Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, should receive the government benefits and rights that are afforded to others that are legally married. While it appears as though state governments across the nation will afford the right to marry to all couples over the next few years, we can’t afford to wait for that to happen. LGBT couples deserve the same rights that heterosexual couples currently enjoy, and passing this bill will do much to give parity to the LGBT community.
Another important bill currently making its way through Congress is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in the workforce on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, due to an oversight in federal anti-discrimination law, 29 states currently permit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and 34 states permit discrimination based on gender identity, which is why this bill needs to be passed immediately.
Surprisingly, this bill also has bipartisan support, as it was introduced in the House and Senate by both Republicans and Democrats and it currently enjoys 53 cosponsors in the Senate and 178 cosponsors in the House. While this bill has failed to pass in previous sessions of Congress, it’s exceedingly likely that our nation’s changing opinions on gay rights will give this bill the support it needs to pass through Congress.
Unfortunately, there is a section within this bill that exempts certain religious employers from abiding by the anti-discrimination provisions. Groups like the American Humanist Association and other non-religious advocacy groups have met with Senators and Representatives to express our opposition to such exemptions, as they show government favoritism of religion and allow some of the most discriminatory employers to continue their bad behavior. So while humanists will continue to push for passage of this bill and others which prevent discrimination, we will also remind legislators that exemptions from these laws only serve to hurt those we wish to protect and weaken the wall of separation between church and state.
The third bill Congress needs to pass isn’t exactly a bill, but rather an amendment to defense bills that has been proposed twice (and failed) which would allow humanist and non-theistic chaplains in the military. Whether or not this amendment passes after being attached to other legislation or becomes its own bill, the need for humanist chaplains in the military is quite strong. Humanist chaplains are important because they serve as a vital resource for humanist and other non-religious soldiers whose experiences in combat may make them question their beliefs, and because soldiers can get confidential counseling from chaplains while they cannot do so with military psychiatrists. Obviously, there is some diversity of opinion within the non-religious community on whether chaplains should be allowed in the military, with some humanists and atheists calling on Congress to remove them entirely from our military. But until such an action occurs Congress has a duty to ensure that all soldiers are able to benefit from having chaplains in the military by guaranteeing that the diversity of beliefs which the chaplains represent is similar to the diversity of belief that is found in America.
When Congress returns next month they will have many issues to deal with, including immigration reform, the budget, sexual assault in the military, and more. While these issues are extremely important, they must not overshadow bills like the Respect for Marriage Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and the amendment to allow humanist chaplains, all of which will help end the discrimination epidemic that plagues our nation.