Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2018, file photo, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, looks on during a visit to the Utah Senate at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Prominent Democratic senators introduced a bill Tuesday to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — Sen. Orrin Hatch's most prized legislation — to prevent the law from being used to justify discrimination against people, including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.

According to the senate sponsors, since its 1993 inception, the original intent of the act has been misappropriated and used to discriminate and harm others such as LGBTQ individuals, women and children.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a bill co-sponsor, said the Do No Harm Act would ensure everyone's rights are protected.

"The freedom to worship is a founding principle of this nation as well as the right to live free of discrimination or fear that one's civil rights will be undermined because of race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity," she said.

Hatch said as the chief architect of the law, nobody understands its "original intent" better than him.

"The original intent was to prevent government officials who think they know better than everyone else from forcing individuals to violate their religious beliefs," he said. "The only thing that's changed is the left's belief that all people are entitled to religious protection, regardless of where their views fall on the ideological spectrum."

Hatch added, "The day we begin carving out exceptions to RFRA is the day RFRA dies."

Hatch was the lead Republican sponsor of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when Congress passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support and President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

The law provides that the government may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government purpose.

Initially, it was usually referenced in cases involving practitioners of minority religions, such as Sikhs and Muslims seeking the right to wear their religious headgear in their driver's license photos, according to the Washington Post. But in recent years, it has become a favorite law among conservative Christians, who say that it protects their rights to abstain from practices they disavow.

Hobby Lobby, the craft chain owned by an evangelical Christian family, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 that for-profit corporations couldn't be forced to pay for contraception coverage if it violated the owners' religious beliefs.

The court is now considering the case of a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to make a cake for a gay couple's wedding.

The Do Not Harm Act would prevent Hatch's legislation from being used to deny protection against discrimination laws or the promotion of equal opportunity, workplace protections, health care access, and accommodations or other benefits and services provided by the government, among other things.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a co-sponsor, said in a statement that the law has been "contorted" in recent years to defend discriminatory practices against LGBTQ individuals and women seeking access to reproductive health services. The changes, he said, would end misuse of the act and ensure that longstanding anti-discrimination laws are not eroded.

53 comments on this story

In an interview earlier this month reflecting on his nearly 42 years in office, Hatch said if he had to pick "one bill that I love more than anything else" its the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"We could not pass that today," the senator said. "That has protected religious freedom like never before. It's something you would think you wouldn't have to protect, but believe me you have to protect it."

The Democrats' countermeasure isn't likely to pass in the Republican-controlled Congress.