Respect for Marriage Act, Backed By Collins, Could Threaten Tax-Exempt Status of Maine’s Churches

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Maine’s churches and other religious non-profits could see their tax exempt status threatened by activist lawsuits if the Senate votes Tuesday to pass the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA).

The RFMA, if passed, would codify the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the 14th Amendment required states to recognize same-sex marriages. The bill would prevent the Supreme Court from overturning Obergefell at a future date, as some Democrats have feared would happen since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, joined every Democrat and a handful of Republicans in voting for a procedural motions to move the bill forward, but she did so after securing an amendment to the bill aimed at protecting religious institutions.

However, religious liberty advocates and Collins’ conservative colleagues said the language wasn’t strong enough.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah made a last minute push Monday for an amendment authored by Lee, and that amendment will get a roll call vote tomorrow.

Collins’ office did not respond when asked whether she would support the Lee amendment.

Conservatives fear that the current version of the bill sets up religious institutions for harassment from activist-driven lawsuits and potential threats to their tax-exempt status.

“While Collins’ amendment attempts to give protection to religious entities like churches and schools, we do not believe they protect ministries from the inevitable, predatory lawsuits that will follow the passing of the Respect for Marriage Act,” said Mike McClellan, policy director for the Christian Civic League of Maine.

“If the RFMA cannot be stopped, the Christian Civic League would much rather see the Lee Amendment pass as the First Amendment should protect religious freedom of individuals as well as religious organizations,” said McClellan.

In an op-ed published Monday, Lee said Collins and other Republicans supporting the bill were relying on assurances that it will not lead to a litigious attacks on religious organizations — assurances Lee does not trust.

“While the tension between same-sex marriage and religious liberty might not be obvious to many, legal experts have long understood that there is a legitimate risk that, without robust protections in place, federal recognition of same-sex marriage could – read against the backdrop of various federal statutes and the way they have been interpreted by the Supreme Court – inflict harm on those who, for reasons rooted in sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, do not embrace same-sex marriage,” Lee said in the op-ed.

“One potential manifestation of this risk was highlighted in a now-famous exchange between Justice Samuel Alito and then-Solicitor General Donald Verrilli at the time Obergefell was argued in 2015, in which Verrilli correctly (and repeatedly) acknowledged that, once same-sex marriage is recognized nationwide, many colleges, universities and other nonprofits could lose their tax-exempt status based on their refusal, rooted in religious belief, to recognize same-sex marriage,” he said.

Lee’s amendment would prevent the federal government from retaliating against people or groups with sincerely held moral beliefs about marriage that differ from the government’s understanding.

“Under the RFMA’s current language, many religious schools, faith-based organizations, and other nonprofit entities adhering to traditional views of marriage would be at risk of losing tax-exempt status and access to a wide range of federal programs,” said Lee. “Many small businesses would also be affected. For example, wedding vendors (including kosher caterers) would be subjected to endless lawsuits and harassment based solely on their beliefs.”

Lee said his bill is a “no-brainer” that would establish protections for same-sex marriage while also protecting religious freedom and religious organizations.

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