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Kennedy Op-Ed: No Exceptions to Equal Protection

Congressman Joe Kennedy III & Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, The Huffington Post

One month after a deadly attack against the LGBT community in Orlando, Republican Leadership in the House of Representatives will mark this week’s anniversary in an ugly way: by considering a piece of legislation that would bar the federal government from taking action when individuals or businesses attempt to deny, discriminate against or otherwise dehumanize LGBT Americans.

Beneath the partisan politicking that will undoubtedly capture headlines as the so-called First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) is given a hearing this week, there is an eerily familiar argument: the religious beliefs of some can trump the basic civil rights of others. From race and gender to sexual orientation and gender identity, it is a dangerous road our country has traveled down before. Still, today we see efforts at every level of government to distort our country’s sacred promise of religious freedom and use it to codify laws that protect some Americans but not others.

As practicing Catholics in public service, we have watched these efforts with heavy hearts. As the first openly gay congressman from New York, one of us has felt them as a direct threat to his own family.

We believe religious liberty and equal protection are not mutually exclusive. In a nation built as a beacon for those facing religious persecution and state-sponsored discrimination, the American commitment to religious liberty was crafted, above all else, as a statement of tolerance. It is a promise to protect and accept the marginalized and the minority, the voiceless and the victimized

In order to keep that promise for every American, however, the First Amendment established a simple boundary: your rights extend so far as they don’t infringe on mine or cause me serious harm. My freedom of faith cannot be used to undermine yours.

A commitment to this basic balance has fueled a growing federal response to those attempting to justify — and codify — discrimination towards the LGBT community. Last year, the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges recognized same-sex marriage under federal law. The Equality Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the Civil Rights Act. The Obama administration’s new guidelines for public schools and health providers regarding transgender persons make it clear that there can be no exceptions to equal protection. Last month, the House of Representatives saw bipartisan support for the Maloney amendment, which would bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT Americans.

Still, a powerful obstacle remains. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act became federal law in 1993 with broad, bipartisan support. Crafted to protect religious minorities, it was a clear statement by the American people and their elected representatives that protection and recourse is needed when the law unintentionally infringes upon free exercise. Jewish children should be allowed to wear yarmulkes in public schools that otherwise prohibit headwear. Fire department restrictions on facial hair should contain exceptions for those of Muslim faith.

Over the past 23 years, however, RFRA has been contorted into a tool for employers to undermine basic workplace protections, organizations to stonewall child labor investigations, and health providers to deny needed care for victims of sexual abuse.

The Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores opened these floodgates even further, providing a path for corporations to cite faith in discriminating against employees.

Worse yet, where the Supreme Court led state and federal governments have followed. In Congress, over 170 Republican members have leant their name to FADA. In our states, more than 25 so-called “religious liberty” bills were introduced in 2015. These bills lay the groundwork for a pregnant worker to be fired because her employer doesn’t believe in premarital sex or for a transgender child to be refused health care because a provider doesn’t accept the child’s gender identity.

It is with these circumstances in mind that the Do No Harm Act was filed earlier this year in the House of Representatives, with Congressman Bobby Scott. This bill would preserve the original purpose of RFRA — to serve as a protective shield for religious minorities — and clarify that no one can claim religious exemption from laws that protect against discrimination, govern wages and collective bargaining, prohibit child labor and abuse, provide access to health care, regulate public accommodations, or provide social services through government contracts.

As men of faith, the ability to freely and fully exercise sincerely-held religious beliefs in this country is a liberty we cherish. Across the nation, religious principle inspires countless families, organizations and communities to champion economic justice, human dignity and common decency.

But there is a difference between exercising religious beliefs and imposing them on others. Our Constitution fiercely protects the former and expressly prohibits the latter.

The Do No Harm Act reestablishes that fundamental distinction and confirms what generations of civic history, constitutional law and American experience have proved true: if civil and legal rights exist only in the absence of a neighbor’s religious objection, then they are not rights but empty promises.

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Joe Kennedy mentions fatal Brigham shooting during sit-in

Aimee Ortiz, The Boston Globe

During the House Democrats’ sit-in on Wednesday, Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts took the microphone to talk about a local victim of gun violence, Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Dr. Michael Davidson.

“I thought I’d speak just for a couple of minutes this evening about a man that used to work in a hospital next to my district,” said Kennedy when he approached the podium.

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Kennedy among early protesters in House sit-in over gun violence

Jim Hand, The Attleboro Sun Chronicle

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III joined a sit-in by congressional Democrats on the floor of the House to protest the lack of action on gun violence, including the murder of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub.

Kennedy, D-Brookline, and his colleagues sat on the floor of the House chamber and refused to leave.

They said they wanted votes on proposals aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists and closing loopholes in rules for background checks on gun purchases.

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Kennedy wants meaningful reform of gun laws after Orlando massacre

Jim Hand, The Attleboro Sun Chronicle

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III said Monday his thoughts and prays go out to the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre and their families. He then immediately said he is getting tired of sending out thoughts and prays after tragedies.

A “boilerplate” response to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history is not adequate, he said.

What he would rather say is that Congress finally acted on steps to try to prevent tragedies and save lives.

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Kennedy Op-Ed: Real mental health reform must move beyond margins

Joe Kennedy III, The Herald News

Community health centers that say even if they could afford to hire 200 new mental health professionals, their caseloads would be full within the week. Insurance companies that refuse to approve mental health coverage on weekends, leaving patients in emergency rooms for several days. Emergency room directors, who can find an in-patient bed for someone facing a physical ailment in just three hours but who spend nearly a full day finding a place for a patient with a mental health crisis.

Parents forced to work as full-time caseworkers for their own children. Children refused the care they need because outdated government regulations put limits on their treatment. This is the heartbreaking reality I heard echoed in a series of discussions I held in our communities for Mental Health Awareness Month. The physicians, families, community health centers, hospital CEOs and advocates who met with me gave a stark picture of the state of mental health care in our commonwealth and country.

They detailed a vastly underfunded mental and behavioral health system that lacks the infrastructure required to deliver proper care to the one in four Americans struggling with mental illness. They described insurance companies flouting parity laws and denying coverage for critical mental health services with little to no explanation. They spoke of a severe workforce shortage and Medicaid reimbursement rates so paltry that providers risk losing money every time they see a patient.

It was a timely discussion. Down in Washington, Congress is in the midst of a debate over how to respond to our country’s growing mental health crisis. Led by the Energy & Commerce Committee on which I serve, we are trying to craft bipartisan solutions for a system plagued by lack of access, funding and stability.

Any comprehensive reform effort must move beyond the margins and attack the systemic inadequacies deeply entrenched across the entire continuum of mental healthcare. First, we have to put teeth behind the federal laws that require insurance companies treat mental health the same way they treat physical health. Referred to as “parity,” these laws were intended to ensure that depression, schizophrenia and addiction are covered to the same extent as cancer, diabetes, or a broken leg. Despite having these laws on the books, however, mental health claims are denied today at nearly twice the rate of physical health claims, often with no explanation.

Earlier this year I introduced the Behavioral Health Coverage and Transparency Act, which would force insurers to disclose how often they deny mental health claims as well as the criteria used to make those determinations. This information would help empower patients to demand the care to which they’re entitled. Additionally, this bill would require federal regulators to undertake a certain number of random health plan audits each year to discourage skirting the law and would establish a Patient Parity Portal, where patients can access coverage information and lodge complaints when they are unfairly denied coverage.

Our health care system doesn’t wait until someone has stage four cancer to offer treatment; those struggling with mental illness deserve the same.

Second, the federal government must address abysmal Medicaid reimbursement rates, which disproportionately jeopardize care for our most at-risk populations. As the single largest payer of mental health services in the United States, Medicaid’s current reimbursement rates are shortchanging providers and patients alike by eliminating incentives to accept new patients, stunting our mental health workforce across the board, and closing off pathways to care for low-income families that often have nowhere else to turn. The impact of this has been profound; over half of all counties in the United States have no practicing psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers. With that in mind, I’ve introduced legislation called the “Medicaid bump,” which would help address this gap and encourage states to increase mental health spending by raising federal reimbursement rates.

These are two essential pillars of systemic reform. But there are many more. We need to fix outdated federal regulations that currently say a child in Medicaid who requires in-patient care can receive treatment for either physical or mental health — but not both. We need to end Medicare’s 190-day lifetime limit on inpatient psychiatric hospitals stays for senior citizens. And we need to finally and fully invest in the entire continuum of mental health care — not just the crisis-stage interventions we resort to in emergency rooms, courtrooms and jail cells at tremendous cost.

The pain that our broken mental health system has inflicted on countless American families and communities is immeasurable. Government at every level must work day and night to address the shortcomings that continue to allow tragedy and suffering to occur.

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