Bills Aim to Block D.C. Laws Opponents Say Violate Religious Liberty

Two U.S. senators have sponsored joint resolutions to try to block two new laws in the District of Columbia that they say prevent religious institutions, pro-life groups and individuals from operating within their own belief systems.

Sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and co-sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, Joint Resolutions 10 and 11 were introduced March 18 in response to two ordinances recently enacted by the D.C. Council titled the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014 and the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014.

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The former amends a pre-existing order to prohibit employers in D.C. from discriminating against an employee or job applicant for her "reproductive health decision-making," such as having an abortion, on the basis "of an employer's personal beliefs about such services."

The latter repeals a statute in the district that allowed faith-based schools to approve student organizations whose goals matched the schools' institutional mission.

The laws were signed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Jan. 25, went into effect March 11 and were sent to Congress for its mandatory review period of 30 days, which ends April 17.

In early March, the council reportedly adjusted the non-discrimination law to indicate employers would not be forced to provide insurance coverage for abortions, but opponents said that didn't go far enough. There is no religious exemption in the bill.

The joint Senate resolutions followed an open letter from Catholic and other groups sent to members of both chambers of Congress, urging them to take action against the ordinances that are "unprecedented assaults upon our organizations."

Opponents of the measures include the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, the Archdiocese of Washington, The Catholic University of America, the Eagle Forum, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Knights of Columbus, March for Life Education and Defense Fund, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to the open letter, "the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 requires religiously affiliated educational institutions to endorse, sponsor, and provide school resources to persons or groups that oppose the institutions' religious teachings regarding human sexuality," while the "reproductive health" measure, it said, "could be read to require our organizations to subsidize elective abortions through their employee health plans."

"The government has no business forcing pro-life and faith-based organizations to betray the very values they were created to advance," said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Casey Mattox in an interview. "D.C. officials had the opportunity to drop these laws, which clearly violate religious freedom and freedom of conscience, but they chose not to. ... Concerns about the constitutionality of these types of laws have come from people across the political spectrum."

On the day the joint resolutions were introduced, Lankford's office issued a statement: "What the D.C. Council has done is a major threat to the fundamental right to religious freedom for D.C. residents and organizations, and a brazen display of intolerance."

"The Constitution provides that all Americans enjoy the right to live a life in accordance with their convictions of faith. Limiting religious practice to a church building is a weekend hobby, not a personal faith. The First Amendment is first for a reason -- it cannot be ignored by the D.C. City Council," it added.

"Last summer's Supreme Court decision affirmed the right to live and work in accordance with your convictions," it said, referring to the Hobby Lobby decision on the federal contraceptive mandate.

A statement from Cruz's office said the district laws were "an assault on the Catholic Church, and we must act to protect religious liberty."

In its own letter to members of Congress, the chairmen of six U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees, ranging from pro-life, marriage and family and religious liberty, said the ordinances not only "trampled on religious liberty" by deliberately removing language meant to protect religious organizations, but that the Human Rights Amendment Act violates a "well-settled constitutional principle that private organizations have the freedom to decide the persons or groups to whom they will offer endorsement, approval or recognition."

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