Religious Liberty Under Assault in Our Nation’s Capital

Jonathan  Abbamonte
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Posted: Dec 11, 2014 12:01 AM
Religious Liberty Under Assault in Our Nation’s Capital

When it comes to abortion leave your faith at the door. At least that seems to be the likely message to all employers in the District of Columbia if a proposed measure is enacted by the D.C. City Council. The “Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014,” a bill being considered by the Council, would mandate all employers, religious or otherwise, protect the “reproductive health rights” of their employees, even when the employer may have a religious or moral objection to services like abortion.

The “Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act” (RHNDA), introduced by Councilmember David Grosso (a former board member of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington), would compel employers, including non-profit pro-life organizations, to accept and affirm abortion in making employment decisions. As a result, employers who conscientiously object to abortion and pro-life organizations would be required to hire, promote, or give a raise to an employee who does not agree with them on abortion. Conceivably, employers would also be required to pay for abortion procedures as part of their employee health care plans.

This is especially troubling as the bill has no religious exemption clause. In fact, the Council has not merely ignored religious objections but specifically has targeted religious employers.

In a Committee report, the Council cites as an example of the “discrimination” it seeks to prevent the story of a Catholic school teacher in Montana who was lawfully dismissed for unrepentantly violating Catholic moral teaching. Yet, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees the right of religious employers to hire individuals who do not openly contradict the faith teachings of their church or institution.

Mr. Grosso on his website cites the recent Supreme Court decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. as another example of “discrimination.” The Hobby Lobby ruling allowed certain religious family-run business owners to claim a religious exemption from a federal mandate requiring them to pay in their employee health care plans for certain contraceptive drugs they found morally objectionable. Many other religious organizations like the Archdiocese of Washington, Right to Life Michigan and the March for Life continue to fight in court for their conscience rights.

In his closing statements in a public hearing on the bill, Mr. Grosso commented on the implications of the proposed legislation: “I believe that religions don’t have to provide contraceptive coverage, which is too bad,” Grosso remarked. “I think what we’re trying to say here is that…coverage of contraceptions [sic] by the employer is part of the package, and we expect that to be there,” Grosso said. While Mr. Grosso may be unhappy with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby, his discontent does not make the D.C. proposal any less unconstitutional given the Supreme Court’s precedent.

Furthermore, the Council has attempted to mask its intentions to force religious employers to pay for abortions in their employee health care plans by claiming that the bill is “not about insurance coverage.”

“Rep. Grosso and the abortion advocates backing this bill were clear that they believe it would force religious and pro-life employers to provide insurance coverage of all ‘reproductive health decisions’ including elective abortions,” said Casey Mattox, Senior Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “The recorded hearing is crystal clear about their intentions…that this law would be blatantly illegal should outweigh politicians’ desire to score political points by attacking pro-life employers,” Mattox said.

Lawrence J. Morris, General Counsel for the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, expressed concern as to the Council’s intentions with regard to the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act: “conceivably it could [take] away our freedom…to operate the university in accordance with the teachings of the Church,” he said.

In its zeal to trample religious liberty, the City Council approved a different measure on December 2nd that will remove a religious exemption from the D.C. Human Rights Act for religious schools and universities. Introduced by D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, the “Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014” (HRAA)—a change to the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977—will force religious educational institutions to fund or facilitate groups formed to advocate for values contrary to their religious beliefs. Religious schools and universities could be compelled to officially recognize gay rights groups that openly advocate for or participate in activities contrary to the school’s religious tenets.

The Act is in clear violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

When the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 was initially ratified, which listed “sexual orientation” as a protected class, no religious exemption clause was included. The lack of protection for religious organizations led to conflict when in 1989 the District attempted to force Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, officially to recognize a student homosexual organization. Congress intervened and passed the Nation’s Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act, more popularly known as the Armstrong Amendment, which exempts religious organizations from being forced to comply. The D.C. Council’s vote on December 2nd revokes the Armstrong Amendment.

The HRAA is subject to a 30 day period of Congressional review after it is signed by the Mayor and submitted to Congress. If Congress does not intervene within 30 days, the Act will become law by default.

“To remove this protection suggests that there is a role for government in determining how a private religious organization…carries out its mission,” Morris said in his testimony before the Council. “It is our right… [and] our responsibility…to teach through our words and actions consistent with our faith,” Morris said. “[It] would take away our freedom as a religious institution to educate our students the way we choose in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church…the Constitution guarantees us this right.”

As for RHNDA, two separate votes by the City Council are necessary to approve of the bill. In its first vote, the Council approved the bill unanimously (minus one councilmember absent) and without debate. The second vote is scheduled for December 16th. Should the D.C. Council pass that provision on the 16th, Congress would again have the opportunity to override the Council’s actions. Since religious freedom is first among our rights as Americans, Congress would be wise to do so.