In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, conservatives have been busy trying to come up with new ways to continue discriminating against those who don’t share their religious beliefs. Just as some states passed so-called ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Acts‘ in anticipation of the historic ruling, there’s now a push by congressional Republicans to pass a federal law that would shield employers from legal action if they act—say, fire someone—in accordance with their belief that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”
But that’s not all the bill would do. In addition to unraveling the anti-discrimination protections for federal contractors enacted by President Obama, the measure is broad enough that it could also sanction discrimination against single women who become pregnant out of wedlock and other people whose choices might upset their boss’ religious sensibilities.
From the text of the First Amendment Defense Act:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.
Introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), the legislation would give special permission to employers who want to fire gay and lesbian employees for getting married to do so without worrying about losing their tax exempt status, grant funding, or federal contracts. While religious organizations are already afforded these “protections,” the new measure would extend them to include for-profit companies as well as non-profits, (It’s also worth noting here that in the absence of a federal anti-discrimination law to protect all workers, firing LGBTQ people for any reason is already legal in most states.)
But, as Dana Liebelson of the Huffington Post pointed out on Thursday, the bill could also be invoked by bosses who want to fire any person whose relationship or life choices might fall outside the bounds of their faith. That could mean single women who become pregnant. Or a person who divorces and remarries. Or, you know, people who wear wool and linen at the same time — after all, the bible forbids that, too.
The First Amendment Defense Act “clearly encompasses discrimination against single mothers,” Ian Thompson, a legislative representative at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Huffington Post. Although existing laws provide protections against sex-based and pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace, the new legislation would greatly hinder the ability of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce such non-discrimination laws — thus rendering them effectively useless in cases in which an employer cites “religious beliefs” as grounds for the discriminatory action.
The bill’s sponsors appear to have forgotten to coordinate their talking points on this issue: While Rep. Labrador denied that the measure could be used to discriminate against single pregnant women, Sen. Lee flatly admitted that the hypothetical firing of an unmarried woman for having sex out of wedlock would be explicitly permitted under the law. “There are [companies and institutions] that have a religious belief that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage” and, in those cases, they “ought to be protected in their religious freedom,” he said during an interview with NPR.
And this isn’t just a hypothetical example — in the past few years there has been a rash of cases where religious schools have fired unwed teachers for becoming pregnant. In January 2014, an unmarried middle school teacher in Montana was fired after 10 years on the job when the school superintendent found out she was pregnant. Just last month, a North Carolina woman settled a discrimination lawsuit two years after she was fired from her position as a preschool teacher for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. In a particularly egregious case, a financial-aid specialist at San Diego Christian College was fired in 2013 for engaging in “sexually immoral behavior” after she became pregnant with her fiancé’s child. But a short time later, the college offered a job to someone else they knew had engaged in so-called “sexually immoral behavior”—her husband. Similar cases have taken place all over the country, with some women — married and unmarried — even being fired for undergoing in vitro fertilization.
Furthermore, it’s not just religious institutions where this happens. Indeed, there is no shortage of cases in which women have been fired from their jobs almost immediately after telling their employers that they had become pregnant. Meanwhile, other forms of discrimination are more subtle, but the effects are just as harmful. An estimated quarter million pregnant women are told each year that they can’t have small changes like switching to lighter duty or getting a stool to sit on so that they can keep working at their jobs safely. That means many are either forced onto unpaid leave before their babies are born or simply fired. Others stick it out and risk health complications, including miscarriage.
A survey of decades of cases like these shows that employers frequently rely on stereotypes about pregnant women, like the idea that they simply won’t return to work after they have their babies, and vilify them to justify firing them. And now Republicans are working to make it easier for employers to do just that.