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Mendelson to Lankford: D.C. Bills Don't Violate Religious Freedom

Mendelson, left, sent a letter to Lankford arguing the bills do not violate religious freedom. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

After Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and James Lankford of Oklahoma introduced resolutions of disapproval to block two District of Columbia bills from becoming law, the D.C. Council chairman took his argument in support of the bills directly to Lankford.  

"There is no intent on our part to violate the rights of others, such as freedom of religion,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wrote in a two-page letter sent to Lankford on March 20. The two bills in question are the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits employer discrimination based on reproductive health decisions,  and the Human Rights Amendment Act, which prohibits religious educations institutions from denying facilities and services to gay groups. As with any D.C. bill, the acts were sent to Congress for a 30-day review period, during which Congress can block the bills by passing joint resolutions of disapproval (which also must be signed by the president).  

Asked if Lankford would respond to Mendelson's letter, a spokesman wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call Thursday that, "Out of respect for Chairman Mendelson and his council, Senator Lankford will speak directly to them before commenting publicly."  

Should Lankford respond, Mendelson would accomplish one of his goals. He said in a recent phone interview that he hoped his letter would yield two results. "One is that [Lankford] realizes … that the act doesn’t do what he opposes," Mendelson said. "And that he picks up the phone and says, 'Yeah, come on up and let’s talk about this.'”  

Mendelson did not send a letter to Cruz, the lead sponsor of the two disapproval resolutions. He said this was "not out of any disrespect for Senator Cruz," but was because Lankford heads the Senate subcommittee that has oversight over the District.  

Although it is unlikely that these disapproval resolutions will take effect, given that the president is not likely to sign them, Mendelson said it was still important to reach out to Lankford.  

"There’s no value in letting them misunderstand what we’ve done, be unhappy with the District, on the theory that the president won’t go along with it," Mendelson said. "If a senator misunderstands what the District is doing, I’m more than happy to reach out to them and have a conversation.”  

Mendelson took a less combative stance than other District officials. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a statement Monday that she is gearing up to oppose the disapproval effort in the House. She also took a swing at Cruz, noting the resolutions coincided with his announcement that he is running for president.  

"I was not surprised that Senator Ted Cruz would leap at the opportunity to introduce two disapproval resolutions last week, perhaps in anticipation of announcing his bid for presidency at Liberty University, where reproductive choice and sexual orientation are hot-button issues,” Norton said.  

Norton said that in addition to the merits of the bills, this was also about respecting District autonomy.  

“We who live in the nation’s capital are American citizens and demand the same respect that is given to citizens in other jurisdictions whose local governments pass similar legislation,” Norton said.  

One D.C. official who has yet to publicly respond to the disapproval resolutions is Mayor Muriel Bowser. Bowser has worked to strengthen the relationship between D.C. and Congress, coming to Capitol Hill several times to personally meet with lawmakers who have D.C. oversight and appropriations responsibilities, though she has not met with Lankford.  

Bowser spokesman Michael Czin did not say if or how she was going to respond to the disapproval resolutions, but wrote in an email Thursday, "We urge everyone, regardless of political leanings, to respect the District's democratic legislative process."  

Despite any efforts to explain the District's position on these bills or rally opposition for the disapproval resolutions, they will come to a vote. The Home Rule Act states if  the resolutions have not been referred out of committee after 20 calendar days, they can be discharged out of the committee. In the Senate, these resolutions also do not have to pass the 60-vote threshold to end debate before they are considered, and only need a majority vote to pass.  

Related: Catholic Leaders Backing Cruz’s D.C. Resolution Cruz, Lankford Move to Block D.C. Bills Leave D.C. Laws Alone, Coalition Tells Congress Heritage Action Urges Congress to Reject D.C. Bills The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.