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Congress: Religion and the Law

The 112th Congress (2011-2012) has been deeply involved in debates about the role of religion in American public life.  Numerous bills related to religion have been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives.  Most of these bills will be shelved during the legislative process, and will not become law.  Others, if passed, would have a significant impact on public policy at home and abroad.

Below are the major religious issues the 112th Congress has taken on, including bills introduced and committee hearings convened:

  • Health Insurance and Birth Control
    In January 2012, the Obama administration announced a new policy requiring religious organizations (excluding places of worship) to offer their employees access to health insurance plans that cover birth control for women.  Many Members of Congress have strenuously resisted this new policy, introducing legislation to prevent its implementation and assailing it in Congressional hearings.
  • Hate Crimes
    Hate crimes, as defined by federal law, are criminal acts motived by the assailants’ prejudice against the victims’ religion, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.  Members of 112th Congress have proposed three measures to strengthen the ability of federal law enforcement authorities to combat hate crimes, including crimes motivated by religious bias.
  • Promoting Religious Freedom Abroad
    Supporting freedom of religion abroad is a basic element of U.S. human rights policy.  Members of the 112th Congress have introduced nearly 20 bills to promote religious freedom in various countries and regions of the world.  The House Foreign Affairs Committee has convened three hearings on this issue.
  • Religious Extremism in America (and the Terrorist Threat Abroad)
    Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Congress has been deeply involved in the formulation of U.S. policy to combat religious extremism at home and abroad, with a principal focus on Islamic extremism.  Several Senate and House committees of the 112th Congress have held hearings on counter-radicalization, religiously motivated terrorism, and sectarian conflict in regions of the world critical to U.S. interests.
  • Religion in Public Schools
    The 112th Congress continues the generations-long tradition of debating the place of religion in public schools.  Two measures await consideration: (1) A simple resolution supporting prayer in school board meetings and (2) a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the government from preventing prayer on public property, including schools.
  • Religious Organizations and Political Campaigns
    A 1954 law banning non-profit organizations (including religious groups) from participating in political campaigns continues to generate dissent.  A House resolution introduced in the 112th Congress seeks to ensure that religious groups can campaign for or against political candidates without losing their tax-exempt status.
  • Religion in the Military
    Growing religious diversity within the Armed Services, along with controversy over the Obama administration’s repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, drives much of the Congressional debate over religion in the military.
  • Protecting Religious Practices (Circumcision)
    In 2011, a local ballot initiative in the city of San Francisco, which sought to ban circumcision of boys in the city, sparked a heated debate in California.  Representative Brad Sherman responded by introducing a bill to prohibit state and local governments from instituting such a ban.
  • Commemorating/Supporting Religion
    Numerous measures introduced in the Senate and the House seek to commemorate or express support for religious symbols or traditions, from the King James Bible to the festival of Diwali (the Hindu “Festival of Light”).