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House Panel to Vote on D.C. Law that Limits Religious Freedom

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee


Mark Stricherz - published on 04/22/15

District bill would bar religious employers from firing workers who violate ethics

A congressional panel is scheduled to vote on legislation to overturn a controversial D.C. law that would prevent Catholic institutions from firing employees who violate their ethics on sex and human life. According to The Washington Post, the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform is poised to take a historic step.

For the first time in 23 years, a powerful House committee has scheduled a vote to upend a D.C. law that 
bans employers from discriminating based on reproductive health decisions. Some conservatives have interpreted the bill to mean that employers in the District, including religious organizations, could eventually be required to provide coverage for contraception and abortions.

The odds that Congress will overturn the law remain slim. The 30-day review period for Congress to take action is more than half over, meaning both the House and Senate would have to repeal by May 2. President Obama would also have to sign off on doing so.

A more likely scenario is that the effort to repeal spills into the next federal budget battle, when Congress has the power to undo D.C. laws by restricting the city’s ability to spend its own money to carry them out.

The District may be in for a “rough go” during this year’s budget process with Republicans in charge, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Last summer, the D.C. City Council found that religious institutions in the District turned away job seekers and fired employees who had abortions, had sex out of wedlock, and used surrogate motherhood. In the fall, the council voted for a bill that would prevent those institutions from discriminating against the job seekers and employees. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, the former head of Covenant House in Washington, urged the council to reconsider the legislation as it might violate religious freedom. New mayor Muriel Bowser did not heed the objections. In January, she signed the bill into law.

For supporters of the law, a vote to overturn it would undermine the District’s autonomy. As Roll Call reported, the District’s representative in Congress wants to keep the bill alive:

“The attack on the D.C. Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, as it is called, needlessly pits reproductive freedom against freedom from discrimination,” Del. 
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Monday at a briefing. “Employers are entitled to their religious beliefs and these beliefs and practices are protected by D.C. law. At the same time, we will not tolerate the misusing of religion to deny women and men in the District of Columbia equal opportunity under the law.”

On Monday, Norton said fellow Democrats will be at the markup to voice their opposition to the disapproval resolutions. “They are going to be there tomorrow. There may be amendments,” she said. “They are very much offended, frankly, by this major intrusion into the reproductive matters of Americans. It’s unthinkable.”

For opponents of the law, a vote to overturn it would strike a blow for religious freedom. As The Daily Signal reported, Rep. Vicky Hartzler introduced the legislation to upend the D.C. law:

“By passing this Act, the D.C. City Council has infringed on the fundamental right of religious freedom,” Hartzler told The Daily Signal. “Americans are protected by the Constitution from being forced by their government to take actions that go against their religious beliefs. Forcing religious schools to go against their beliefs goes directly against our Constitution and shouldn’t be allowed.”

The Republican Study Committee—with its 170 members—is backing both efforts.

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