On the Hill: Welcome Back, Congress. Now Get to Work!

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The 114th United States Congress has been away on recess for over a month, but they finally return this week with a full schedule of must-pass legislation (including funding the government). But it’s also crucially important that Congress take up some lesser known bills that would have a big impact on American society as well as on foreign governments should these bills make it to President Obama’s desk for his approval.

First on the list are two resolutions introduced over the past few months following the brutal murders of nontheistic bloggers in Bangladesh and around the world. While it’s encouraging to see that arrests have been made in many of the cases (and that criminal prosecutions are being undertaken), the decision by the Bangladeshi government to maintain their blasphemy laws will only further encourage religious extremists to take the law into their own hands and attack bloggers who promote atheism or criticize certain religious beliefs.

Thankfully, two resolutions (H. Res. 396 and H. Res. 290) have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to both condemn these vicious murders and to encourage foreign governments to repeal their blasphemy laws. H. Res. 290 not only encourages the president and State Department to demand that countries  strike down their blasphemy laws and free those imprisoned for violating them, it also encourages policymakers and government officials to oppose efforts at the United Nations and in other international forums to create a global blasphemy law standard.

Both of these resolutions have bi-partisan support and are being advocated for by a broad coalition of communities, including humanists, Christians, Muslims, and members of other majority and minority faiths. Even for the notoriously gridlocked US Congress, such intense public support should be a clear sign that the American people want action to save lives and promote freedom of speech.

A slightly more controversial topic that Congress should address in the coming months is LGBTQ equality. For years, the legislature has neglected to pass the Employment and Student Non-Discrimination Acts, much to the disappointment of progressive activists. The former would seek to prevent employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers and the latter would finally give students the ability to address anti-LGBTQ discrimination that they suffered either from school staff or from their fellow students.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), working with his House colleague Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), restarted the debate about LGBTQ rights by introducing the Equality Act of 2015, which combines many of the previous anti-LGBTQ discrimination bills into one big one. This bill not only seeks to end employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, but includes protections against housing discrimination, discrimination in public schools, credit discrimination, and other forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While the bills do contain worrying exemptions for certain religiously-affiliated businesses, humanists should be proud supporters of the bill while advocating for narrower exemption language to ensure that LGBTQ Americans are protected and religious Americans are not given a special right to discriminate. And with the acceptance of gay marriage by the majority of the country and by our Supreme Court, there has never been a better chance to pass these important protections.

Another important bill for Congress to take up is the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which has the support of over forty Democrats in the House of Representatives. This bill, requiring the federal government to distribute grants in order to provide comprehensive and medically accurate sex education for youth in public schools, could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for abstinence-only education. It’s also important to note that the bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to allow funding to be used for contraceptive distribution in schools.

Congress has a little over a year left before the elections. As we turn the corner on the new year the legislature will become even more politicized than usual, as members introduce political bills that will either help get them re-elected or will hurt the chances of their rivals and ideological opponents. That means the amount of time Congress has to work on actual legislation is limited, which is why taking up bills that deal with discrimination, blasphemy, and education before election season begins is crucial. After a month back home, Congress needs to hit the ground running if they hope to have any chance of working to improve the lives of the American people.