On Wednesday, Senators Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced resolutions of disapproval that, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, would effectively overturn two bad pieces of legislation passed by the D.C. council earlier this year.
In January, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed two euphemistically titled bills: the “Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act” and the “Human Rights Amendment Act.” The former could force employers in the nation’s capital to cover elective, surgical abortions in their health plans and require pro-life organizations to hire individuals who advocate for abortion. The latter could force Christian schools to violate their beliefs about human sexuality and recognize an LGBT student group or host a “gay pride” day on campus.
Now, Congress has the opportunity to push back on these assaults on freedom and protect First Amendment rights in the District of Columbia.
The transmission of the two bills to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 6 started the clock on a 30 legislative day congressional review period. With only 23 legislative days left before the D.C. bills are automatically enacted, there is no time to waste.
The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) empowers Congress to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the District. Congress delegated some of this authority in 1973 when it passed the Home Rule Act, which created a city council and mayor—but specifically retained authority for Congress to overrule bad policies enacted by the D.C. government.
Congress should do this because no governmental entity should force a citizen to promote or pay for abortion, or violate their beliefs that men and women are made for each other in marriage.
The legal and constitutional problems with both D.C. bills were apparent well before the Council passed them. Councilmembers received multiple letters from concerned pro-life groups and religious schools in the District. Even the former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a liberal Democrat, urged the council to postpone voting on the abortion coverage bill. He noted that a review of the legislation by the Office of Attorney General “deemed the legislation legally insufficient.” The mayor’s letter continued:
According to the OAG, the bill raises serious concerns under the Constitution and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). Religious organizations, religiously-affiliated organizations, religiously-driven for-profit entities, and political organizations may have strong First Amendment and RFRA grounds for challenging the law’s applicability to them.
The threat against conscience rights is serious for many pro-life groups in D.C. Organizations whose mission is to empower women facing unplanned pregnancies with physical and emotional support or who advocate for policies that affirm the dignity and value of both mother and child in law could be forced to provide insurance coverage for the life-ending procedure they oppose.
Likewise, if this new “Human Rights” legislation goes into effect, it will severely infringe the ability of D.C. religious schools to operate according to their religious beliefs. After all, many religions believe that we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other. Americans are free to live as they choose, but no one should demand that government coerce private institutions to violate their religious beliefs.
In addition to passing resolutions of disapproval of the two D.C. bills, Congress can also attach riders to annual appropriations which provide federal funds to the District, preventing government monies from being used to put the legislation into effect.
>>> Factsheet: Protecting Freedom in the District of Columbia
Congress should also act to protect conscience and religious liberty more broadly. The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act would provide greater protection of individuals and organizations’ conscience rights when it comes to abortion coverage. The Marriage and Religious Freedom Act would prevent the federal government from taking adverse action against an individual, organization or family business based on their beliefs that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.
Protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience is the embodiment of a principled pluralism that fosters a more diverse civil sphere—and a peaceful coexistence even amid disagreement. In a nation founded on limited government and religious freedom, government should not attempt to coerce any citizen, association, business or school into promoting or paying for abortion, or celebrating same-sex relationships.