Though results are still coming in from Tuesday’s midterm elections that will determine which party controls the House of Representatives, Congress is coming back in session today with a long list of legislative items to do before the end of the year. This session between the election and the swearing in of the new Congress in January is called the Lame Duck session.
This year, Congress must pass either an omnibus appropriations bill (a budget for this 2023 fiscal year) or another continuing resolution by December 16 to avoid a government shutdown and fund the government, as well as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), before the end of the year. Additionally, Congressional leaders have indicated that they may use this time to pass the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate, reform the Electoral Count Act, take up permitting reforms, or raise the debt ceiling. As uncertainty lingers and fallout grows from Republicans’ disappointing electoral results, it remains to be seen exactly what will be done before the end of the year.
The Lame Duck also presents a unique opportunity for smaller, bipartisan bills to be passed into law. Oftentimes, these bills will be added on to the omnibus or NDAA packages. Other times, retiring lawmakers or those who were not reelected will be more willing to take votes that go against their party because they will not have to face voters following this session. These dynamics come together to occasionally allow bills to find passage that have been stuck in Congressional gridlock.
As we enter into this important legislative session, the ERLC will be advocating on behalf of Southern Baptists to uphold life and religious liberty and pursue biblical justice for the vulnerable. In this session, the ERLC’s top priorities will be protecting life and religious liberty in appropriations, opposing the Respect for Marriage Act, and advocating for permanent protections for Dreamers and Afghans in the US.
Protecting life and religious liberty in appropriations
Congress must either complete its appropriations work or pass another continuing resolution (CR) by the end of December 16. Congress previously passed a short-term CR in September to fund the government through December 16.
On July 20, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a six-bill minibus, which included Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration; Energy and Water Development; Financial Services and General Government; Interior, Environment; and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs. Though all bills have been passed out of committee, the House has not yet taken action on Commerce, Justice, and Science; Defense; Homeland Security; Labor, Health and Human Services, Education; Legislative Branch, or State, Foreign Operations. The Senate has also released but not yet taken up its own version of these bills. If passed, these bills will have to be reconciled with the House versions.
The FY2023 appropriations bills are troubling because they remove several longstanding pro-life riders from the budget. Just as last year, the Hyde Amendment has not been included in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill. The Hyde Amendment prevents Medicaid from covering the cost of abortion. At the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, messengers unanimously approved a resolution condemning efforts to strip Hyde from any federal appropriations bills and called upon Congress to uphold all pro-life riders.
Additionally, the appropriations bills removed the Weldon Amendment for only the second time since 2005. Weldon protects the rights of conscience for healthcare professionals and institutions by preventing HHS from denying funding to recipients that refuse to provide, pay for, or refer for abortion. The budget would also prohibit any president from reinstituting the Mexico City Policy, reestablished and expanded by President Trump, as the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy.
Though excluded from the initially released bills last year, these pro-life and conscience protection riders were ultimately included in the final FY2022 appropriations package. It is our hope that the same will happen this year. The ERLC is urging Congress to support protections against federal funds being used for abortion and to ensure that pro-life spending riders are approved in all spending legislation passed in the 117th Congress. We also are urging Congress to remove harmful provisions that would exclude people of faith from serving the most vulnerable.
Opposing the Respect for Marriage Act
The Respect for Marriage Act is a bill that seeks to “repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and codify federal recognition for marriage equality.” As stated in the bill summary, “the bill repeals and replaces provisions that define, for purposes of federal law, marriage as between a man and a woman and spouse as a person of the opposite sex with provisions that recognize any marriage that is valid under state law.” The Respect for Marriage Act would also permit the Department of Justice “to bring a civil action” and would establish “a private right of action for violations.”
The Respect for Marriage Act is a federal legislative attempt to entrench, nationwide, the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which ruled that “state laws barring same-sex marriages were unconstitutional.” At its core, this bill is a further attempt by Congress to redefine marriage, a union that need not be redefined and which government has no authority to redefine.
On July 19, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Respect for Marriage Act with broad bipartisan support. The final vote was 267-157, with 47 Republicans joining with all Democrats in support of the bill. Before it can become law, the bill must be passed in the Senate and be signed by the president. For the bill to pass, 10 GOP senators will have to join all Democrats to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Schumer has indicated that he plans to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and sponsors indicate that they believe they will have enough votes
In addition to going against the biblical definition of marriage, the bill poses serious problems for religious liberty. In a letter sent to the Senate on July 26, ERLC President Brent Leatherwood conveyed why the Respect for Marriage Act presents such grave religious liberty concerns for people of faith. He said, “Given the significant role marriage plays in faith, the ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ raises serious religious liberty concerns for individuals and organizations who maintain this view of marriage (the view that marriage is an institution created by God between one man and one woman for life) and are in contract with, funded by, or working jointly with the government.”
Since Obergefell, rights of conscience and religious freedom have found themselves in the crosshairs of a number of notable cases including Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018) and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia (2021), each of which was ruled in favor of religious liberty. Should the Respect for Marriage Act find passage, however, we may rightly assume that rights of conscience and religious freedom will find themselves under threat yet again. The ERLC strongly opposes the Respect for Marriage Act and will continue to work against its passage in the Senate.
Advocating for Dreamers and Afghans
Two populations of vulnerable people in need of Congressional action before a new Congress is sworn in are Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought here by their undocumented parents, and Afghan evacuees, who were brought to the United States through humanitarian parole after the fall of Afghanistan last year.
A recent decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) to be unlawful but temporarily allowed Dreamers, who currently hold DACA status, to temporarily maintain their status. The decision is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, where it is expected that the high court will uphold the decision, terminating the program. This recent decision means that Congressional action for Dreamers is needed more urgently than ever before.
Dreamers, through DACA, only have temporary protection with no path to legal permanent residency or citizenship, and only Congress is able to pass legislation that creates such a pathway to permanency. For now, these young immigrants, who were brought here at no fault of their own and have known no other home than the U.S., remain in severe uncertainty, facing potential future deportation if the DACA program were to be terminated.
Similarly, last year during the fall of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans who had served with the U.S. military or were especially vulnerable to persecution from the Taliban were evacuated to the U.S. through a tool known as humanitarian parole. Though this tool allows individuals to reach safety much faster than through the refugee resettlement program, it only provides two years of legal status and work authorization, whereas the refugee program includes a route to legal permanent residency or citizenship.
As these individuals approach two years in the U.S. this upcoming summer, they will be forced to either enter our backlogged asylum system, become undocumented and lose their ability to work legally, or face deportation back to Afghanistan, where they will almost assuredly face intense persecution. To remedy this problem, Congress must act to provide these individuals with a pathway to permanent status in the United States. The Afghan Adjustment Act would provide this protection for Afghans while also increasing national security through additional vetting procedures.
Both of these groups of people have an urgent need for Congressional action. Additionally, Kevin McCarthy, who is likely to be the future Speaker of the House of Representatives if Republicans win the majority, as expected, has indicated that he will oppose any immigration legalization legislation and block it from coming to the House floor for a vote. This reality makes it essential for Congress to take up protections for both Dreamers and Afghans before the new Congress begins. The ERLC is urging Congress to act quickly and provide a pathway to permanency for these vulnerable groups that have already become integral parts of our churches and communities.