A powerful congressional committee last night passed a measure to kill one of two controversial pieces of legislation from taking effect in the District of Columbia, moving closer to acting out a historic power play against a bill that critics believe infringes on religious liberty.
Opponents of the bill, called the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, say it prevents schools and organizations in the nation’s capital from operating in accordance to their moral and religious beliefs.
If lawmakers are successful in overturning the bill, it would be the first time in more than two decades that Congress has undone Washington, D.C., law.
“We think [the] law goes too far because you need to adhere to the Constitution and [to] some previous laws at the federal level which keep intact religious liberties,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Daily Signal in an exclusive interview.
The measure aims to prevent employees in Washington, D.C., from being discriminated against based on their reproductive health decision-making.
But Republicans argue the bill could force pro-life employers in Washington, D.C., to hire individuals whose reproductive health decisions stand in opposition to the organization’s viewpoint, and require them to cover elective, surgical abortions in their health plans.
The Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed a resolution disapproving the law along party lines last night, and it will now move to the House for a full vote.
In order to effectively overturn the measure, Republicans would need the support of both chambers of Congress and the president.
D.C. officials stand by the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, saying it is necessary to prohibit employers from discriminating against an employee, spouse or dependent based on their private reproductive health decisions.
They also argue Congress should stay out of their decision-making process.
“The duly elected officials of the District should be respected,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who signed the act into law on March 6.
But Chaffetz, chair of the committee, maintains that Congress has a responsibility to oversee the capital’s legislation. He said:
“Often times, Washington, D.C., will say, ‘We can govern ourselves,’ and most of the time, they do. But being the unique situation as our nation’s capital, Congress does play a role.”
Under what’s called the Home Rules Act of 1973, Congress has the power to review all legislation passed by the District of Columbia.
While Congress is actively trying to reverse the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, it is being more cautious about weighing in on a second controversial D.C. bill.
On March 6, Bowser signed the Human Rights Amendment Act, which would eliminate the long-standing “Armstrong Amendment.”
The Armstrong Amendment was enacted by Congress in 1989 to exempt religious schools in D.C. from being forced into violating their beliefs about human sexuality by “promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief.”
“[W]e are not going to have our [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] students stigmatized and denied by their own universities and schools,” said D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in an earlier press release defending the legislation.
Critics of the measure say that by repealing the exemption for religious-affiliated schools in D.C., they could be forced to sponsor clubs and events that are in contradiction with that institution’s beliefs.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., attempted to stop the Human Rights Amendment Act on April 14 by introducing a second resolution of disapproval, but the committee overseeing D.C. law decided not take up her measure.
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In defense of that decision, a committee spokesperson told The Daily Signal they do not need to push forward the resolution “because it is unconstitutional from a First Amendment perspective and it is in conflict with an existing act of Congress.”
“[I]t would not stand [in court],” they said, and therefore “does not require committee action.”
Norton said in a statement that she “was pleased” to hear the committee would not take on the Human Rights Amendment Act “at any point this Congress.”
Hartzler, on the other hand, was “disappointed” that Republican leaders chose not to proactively address the D.C.’s “unlawful actions.”
“I believe it is important to send a clear message that unlawful actions cannot stand, and I will continue to advocate that Congress acts to rebut the D.C. City Council’s disregard for religious liberties,” she told The Daily Signal.
The Heritage Foundation’s Sarah Torre, who focuses on issues related to religious liberty, criticized the committee for not confronting the bill.
“Leaving these schools to the mercy of courts is not an effective solution,” she said.
Conservatives dedicated to protecting liberty shouldn’t shy away from protecting the freedom of religious schools—that are doing incredibly effective work in the District—to run their schools according to their beliefs about marriage. Congress has the opportunity to push back on both of these bad pieces of legislation and protect the rights of D.C. residents.
The Senate has already introduced resolutions of disapproval for both the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act under the leadership of Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and James Lankford, R-Okla. But without an identical measure in the House, any attempt to stop the latter is impossible.
For some D.C.-based private schools and organizations, the committee’s inaction leaves them in a vulnerable position.
Tom Burnford, the secretary for education for the Archdiocese of Washington—which oversees 20 K-12 schools in D.C., told The Daily Signal in a previous interview that the Human Rights Amendment Act could compromise the foundation of their institutions.
“[Parents] choose to send their child to a Catholic school because they know their child or high school student will be taught a specific set of values—a specific faith,” he said. “What’s problematic is when the government starts interfering to determine what those values are.”