Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, is calling on Congress to reject two District of Columbia Council bills, which, the group argues, infringe upon religious liberty. It is the first time the group has weighed in on a District initiative.
"The D.C. government is forcing religious organizations and employers to choose between upholding their beliefs or complying with a coercive government regulation that requires them to violate their beliefs and missions," Michael Needham, the group's CEO, said in a statement Tuesday. "Heritage Action urges Congress to use its constitutional authority to disapprove of these intrusive and flawed laws.” Heritage Action's first foray into D.C. affairs is a sign, the group's spokesman, Dan Holler, said of the gravity of the situation and potential national implications. The bills in question are the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act, which D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed last weekend.
Holler said in a Wednesday phone interview the group is pushing lawmakers to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval once the bills are transmitted to Congress. Under the Home Rule Act, the D.C. Council must transmit locally passed legislation for a 30-day congressional review period, during which Congress can reject the law by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, which must be signed by the president.
"We’ve had a bunch of conversations with staff and members alike on the issue," Holler said, though he would not discuss which and how many members the group has contacted. Asked if anyone has expressed interest in introducing a resolution of disapproval, Holler said, "There are multiple people who are interested.”
The bills have not been transmitted to Congress, so the review period has not started. The D.C. Council secretary's office indicated the bills will likely be transmitted within the next week. So the clock is ticking for Heritage Action to educate lawmakers about the two bills.
The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act seeks to prohibit employer discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. At-large D.C. Councilmember David Grosso, who introduced the bill last May, said in a Wednesday phone interview he was not surprised to hear Heritage Action was weighing in.
“Like in all these situations, I’m not the least bit surprised," Grosso said. "In lots of cases, we’ve had outside groups that look to Congress to try and help them move their ideas.”
Heritage Action argues Grosso's bill could force anti-abortion groups to pay for abortions and contraception. In a December article for the Daily Signal, a Heritage Foundation's publication, policy analyst Sarah Torrey pointed to language in the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977, which Grosso's act amended, as evidence that a company could be forced to pay. The Human Rights Act states an employer cannot discriminate against any individual "with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment."
Grosso argued that is not the case. “This is not saying that the company or the business actually has to buy the services or buy the contraception coverage,” Grosso said.
The D.C. Council and Heritage Action also differ on their interpretations of the Human Rights Amendment Act. The text of the act directs the Office of Human Rights to "repeal the exemption allowing religiously-affiliated educational institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
The Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson wrote in a Daily Signal article that the bill could coerce schools into violating their religious beliefs and "force Christian schools to recognize an LGBT student group or host a 'gay pride' day on campus."
Despite the unlikelihood that both chambers would pass a joint resolution of disapproval, and the president, who has warned against interfering in the District's affairs, would sign it, Congress does have a history of interfering in D.C. over these issues.
The Human Rights Amendment Act is actually an attempt to undo congressional action. In 1989, Congress attached the Nation's Capital Religious Liberty Act to a federal appropriations bill and allowed religious educational institutions to "deny, restrict, abridge, or condition" funds, school facilities, etc., from gay groups.
Congress has also interfered in the District's abortion policy. In December, Congress attached a rider to the year-end spending package barring funds from being used for abortion. Last week, the House passed a bill that included a provision banning D.C. from using its local funds for abortion services.
The bill passed last week was the result of a GOP about-face on abortion bills. House Republicans originally planned to vote on a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, but pulled the bill due to opposition within its own caucus. The swap was met with sharp criticism from anti-abortion advocates. Holler said the backlash could mean that GOP leadership might want to reject the D.C. bills as show of solidarity with the pro-life community.
"This is much broader than just a D.C. Council issue," Holler argued. "It has wider-reaching ramifications.”
But Grosso said he hoped Republicans who favor local control would discourage Congress from meddling with the D.C. bills.
"My hope is that there will be a tension that builds up there between those Republicans that believe the federal government should stay out of state business,” Grosso said. "I hope that they will listen closely … and say, 'Let the people’s will be.'"
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