D.C. Deserves Respect, Not Congressional Rebuke | Commentary

Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:10pm

Religious liberty is, arguably, our most precious American value. We should vehemently protect this freedom when it is threatened.

But the constitutional phrase that secures religious liberty — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — cannot be distorted to mean any action motivated by faith must be allowed, especially if it infringes on the human rights of other Americans. Freedom means freedom for everyone.

Recently, the District of Columbia passed two acts that have been criticized for violating religious freedom by the usual suspects, such as the Family Research Council, National Organization for Marriage and National Right to Life Committee. What the acts really do is prevent discrimination in the name of religion.

The District of Columbia’s Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 was passed by the D.C. Council and signed to law by the mayor as a reaction to a 1989 amendment in Congress. The 1989 amendment allows faith groups to discriminate against gays and prevent them from using school facilities or meeting in an unofficial capacity on campus. The District decided to invalidate this 1989 federal amendment with its own legislation prohibiting educational institutions from discriminating against gays while allowing religious schools the right to withhold official recognition.

As explained by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., “There is no intent to violate the rights of others, such as freedom of religion. Georgetown University, for example, has found a way to avoid discrimination against [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] students while adhering to the university’s strong Catholic traditions.”

The D.C. Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014 is also similarly balanced. It states that an employer may not fire someone because they’ve made intimate, private decisions about their personal reproductive health care — but they need not actively support it either.

Deciding to use birth control, terminate a pregnancy or use assisted reproductive technology are private and deeply personal decisions made by a woman, her family and her doctor. She shouldn’t be worried that making them will get her fired.

These human rights laws are being challenged in Congress by a presidential candidate, Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, apparently as an adjunct to his campaign, as well as by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, whose committee in the House has oversight over the District, jumped on the opportunity the senators presented, stating, “We want to take some action in the House too.”

On April 21, he followed through by passing a disapproval resolution blocking the Reproductive Health Non- Discrimination Act in committee on a party line vote. On April 30, the House voted 228-192, with 13 Republicans joining the opposition and 3 Democrats voting with the majority, to disapprove of the act.

However, as Roll Call reported, “Despite the House’s vote Thursday, the law is poised to take effect, since the [30-day congressional] review period ends Saturday and the Senate has left town.” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is the chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C., made clear that this is a “benchmark for further discussions during appropriations season.” (“Cruz Makes Ill-Fated Pitch to Block D.C. Law,” Roll Call, May 1.)

According to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, because this is a human rights law preventing discrimination, not a government program, it’s not clear how Congress can affect the act through appropriations. But I always expect Republicans to try some maneuver when it comes to intervening in a woman’s health decisions with her doctor.

Notably, the House has refused to consider a disapproval resolution over the Human Rights Amendment. Conservatives still think it violates religious freedom. However, given the unified backlash of the business and civil rights community in Indiana and Arkansas over discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration acts, Republicans scaled back their attack on LGBT equality.

It’s ironic that Cruz, who has purported to base his short (two-year) Senate career on cutting back federal influence on individuals and local jurisdictions, wants to play the role of autocrat over laws passed by the representatives of 658,000 citizens in the District of Columbia.

Congress’ Home Rule Act of 1973 permitted certain powers of government to be done by locally elected D.C. representatives. For nearly a quarter century Congress has deferred to city lawmakers.

Since these disapproval resolutions also require the majority of both chambers of Congress and the president’s signature, given President Barack Obama’s veto pen, and the deadline for congressional action, Cruz and House Republicans’ actions are all the more transparently political.

Since 1991, Congress has not overridden a D.C. Council law, due in large part to the efforts of its non-voting delegate, Norton. In full disclosure, I served as chief of staff and press secretary for Norton until 1999.

In a release, Norton noted that American citizens in the District of Columbia deserve “the same respect that is given to citizens in other jurisdictions whose local governments pass similar legislation.” Should these measures actually infringe religious freedom, the venue to adjudicate this is the courts, not a politically motivated Congress.

The District made up its mind, and Cruz and the House of Representatives should respect a local jurisdiction’s decision.

Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist, commentator for CNN and ABC News, and a former Hill staffer.