The So-Called First Amendment Defense Act Reaches the States

Today, we continue our coverage of bills that we expect to dominate the state legislatures by focusing on bills already being discussed in four states—Virginia, Georgia, Washington, and Illinois—that are modeled after the federal First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) bill.

 What Do FADA Bills Do?

The federal FADA would allow individuals to ignore federal laws and policies that conflict with their belief that marriage is “between a man and a woman” and that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” If enacted, private businesses, federal contractors and grantees, and even government employees could discriminate against same-sex couples, unmarried couples, married couples in which one person had been married before, single mothers, individuals who have had sex outside of marriage, and others.

The consequences of passing a state FADA would be far-reaching. For example, county clerks who fashion themselves after Kim Davis would be able to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; a state-funded faith-based organization running a food bank could refuse to provide services to a single mother in need; and a state emergency management employee could refuse to help an unmarried couple who lost their home in a flood.

What’s more, FADA bills would even prohibit the state from enforcing non-discrimination laws against individuals and for-profit businesses that claim a religious objection. Illinois enacted a statewide Human Rights Act in 2005 that explicitly contains protections for those in the LGBT community. Likewise, Washington has a state-wide law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Both Illinois’ and Washington’s bills, however, would allow businesses to ignore these non-discrimination laws.

How Do These Bills Differ?

The Illinois bill, SB 2164, which carries over from the 2015 session and is still alive, mirrors the federal bill. As does, the Georgia bill, which we expect lawmakers in Georgia to file this week. The bills in Washington and Virginia, however, have some differences.

The bill in Washington, HB 2631, is broader than the federal FADA, as it incorporates provisions to exempt individuals from providing goods or services for wedding celebrations or solemnizations if it would violate their religious or philosophical beliefs. Virginia’s HB 773 is slightly narrower than the federal version: It does not cover government employees or medical facilities. This means that HB 773 would not protect a county clerk from refusing to issue marriage licenses.

In addition, both Virginia’s and Washington’s FADAs include a definition of “man” and “woman” as being limited by “anatomy,” “genetics,” or “biology” at the time of birth, meaning that they would specifically allow for discrimination against the transgender community.

If these states enact their state-level FADA bills, they will not only enshrine discrimination into law, but they will send a signal to other states and the federal government that FADA bills are justifiable. All four of these states’ legislatures are now in session this week. We will be actively monitoring these bills to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop them.

To see more of what we’re tracking in the states, visit our State Legislative Tracker page. 

Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Elise Helgesen Aguilar is the Federal Legislative Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Elise graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Law School in 2011. There, she was Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy as well as the founder and president of the University of Florida ACLU. After law school, Elise worked on voting rights and electoral reform as a Legal Fellow with FairVote. She also worked on successful Congressional campaigns in both Florida and Virginia. Elise graduated cum laude from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a B.A. in Government. She is originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.