Congress has a short window of time in which to block two measures by the District of Columbia City Council restricting free speech, freedom of assembly, and the free exercise of religion of mission-oriented groups within city limits.
At issue are the “Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act” (RHNDA) and “Human Rights Amendment Act” (HRAA), each recently passed by the DC City Council and signed by the mayor, and forwarded to Congress March 6th. The measures take effect automatically unless Congress expresses disapproval within 30 legislative days.
RHNDA’s proponents say the law aims at preventing employees from being fired for private contraceptive choices, but the measure contains no conscience exemption for mission-oriented groups and is written so broadly that it could compel pro-life groups to cover elective abortions in their insurance plans and prevent schools, charities and advocacy groups from firing people in teaching or counseling positions who are actively undermining the organization’s mission.
Chieko Noguchi, Director of Media and Public Relations for the Archdiocese of Washington told me “RHNDA affects any mission-oriented group, not just religious employers, but what it means for us is we would be coerced into hiring or retaining employees whose public behavior directly undermines our teachings and mission.”
HRAA, the second law at issue, repeals the 1989 “Armstrong Amendment,” which provides religious schools an exemption from having to sponsor or promote clubs and activities contrary to their mission. Asked about it, Noguchi said, “We can’t effectively teach about marriage and human sexuality if our schools are simultaneously forced to endorse and support groups that oppose those beliefs, so the Catholic identity of our schools is threatened under HRAA.”
Taking the two measures together, the DC City Council has declared a war on chastity by making it virtually impossible for any entity (apart from churches themselves) within the city limits to clearly teach and uphold any idea of sexuality contrary to the DC City Council’s. Pastors may say what they like, but institutions built by people acting on their convictions may not.
By adopting this attitude, the DC City Council betrays a shocking disregard for all its citizens — not just pro-lifers and the religious. The affront to pro-life, pro-chastity and religious citizens is obvious. They have the same inalienable rights and same First Amendment freedoms to live, assemble and speak in accord with their own convictions as any other Americans.
But the Council’s efforts reach far beyond those people and groups. As a spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom pointed out in testimony before the City Council, mission-oriented groups (including 7 pro-life organizations who issued a joint statement opposing the measures) based in the District of Columbia contribute to the city’s economy and employ its citizens.
Is it good for DC and its residents to hound advocacy groups out of the city? What becomes of the secretaries and janitors left without jobs if their employers decamp to friendlier locations?
Moreover, the City Council is asking every person in the city to foot the bill for a totally unnecessary legal battle. RHNDA is an obvious violation of both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as the City Council was fully aware when it debated the measure last December. Michael Sean Winters points out in a column for the National Catholic Reporter that by knowingly controverting both the Constitution and federal law:
“…the DC City Council just handed the taxpayers of the city a big fat bill for future, and unnecessary, litigation. The courts have already determined the issue in Hosanna Tabor. The only reason to persist in passing this measure was to look good in front of the constituencies that wanted it. It may not withstand a court challenge, but your campaign literature can say that you passed a bill.”
Is the District of Columbia’s budget operating at a surplus that it can afford superfluous lawsuits, presumably at the expense of other city programs? How do DC tax-payers feel about footing the bill for trying to force the March for Life to hire abortion advocates and pay for abortions?
The principal sponsor of the bills, City Councilman David Grosso, is a past Planned Parenthood board member whose wife is president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, and the groups lined up in support of the legislation are a who’s who of well-funded progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, all itching to drive their ideological rivals out of business with nuisance lawsuits – which, make no mistake, is the actual purpose of both measures.
If you’re pro-abortion or secular, maybe you don’t care (though a government that can coerce speech and association on behalf of one set of corporations to destroy its rivals can do the same to anyone. Are you sure your employer will never fall afoul of such cozy crony relationships between corporations and politicians?).
Even so, you should understand that the Catholic Church –which is but one of many charitable institutions to be affected by these laws– is the largest non-governmental social service provider in the city. It runs two hospitals and numerous programs aiding the homeless, assisting women in crisis pregnancy centers, caring for immigrants and helping ex-felons with re-entry into society. Are you comfortable sabotaging these marginalized groups just to force people whose ideas make you uncomfortable cry “Uncle”?
To take just the instance of Catholic schools, the Archdiocese of Washington, with twenty primary and secondary schools in the city, and more than 5700 students, estimates that it saves DC taxpayers at least $107 million annually. More than 2800 minority (including Black, Asian, Indian, Hispanic and multi-racial) students attend Archdiocesan schools in DC, and more attend independent Catholic schools (this data was not immediately available). The Archdiocese of Washington provides $6 million in tuition assistance annually to students in DC and five Maryland counties in the Archdiocese. $1 million dollars goes to a consortium of four Catholic schools in the District and an additional $600,000 goes to Archbishop Carroll high school. There is no available breakdown of aid distinguishing DC from Maryland Catholic schools, but many families at 15 other Catholic schools within city limits receive tuition assistance from the remaining $4.4 million of annual tuition help from the Archdiocese. Even more assistance is available through numerous grant and scholarship programs. Apparently the City Council thinks that money would be better spent on litigation, education that lifts its citizens out of poverty be damned.
Speaking of lifting students out of poverty: Since one of the most important factors in breaking cycles of poverty for women and children is encouraging the postponement of sex until marriage, by preventing religious (not just Catholic) schools and charities from giving clear witness about the value of chastity in their hiring, teaching, funding and sponsorship practices, Planned Parenthood and its puppets on the City Council do active harm to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
You shouldn’t have to be religious or pro-life to find these laws preposterous and dangerous, because it’s not only DC that’s at stake. If allowed to stand, the measures will give momentum to similar legislation being considered in at least four states.
As of this past Tuesday, bills expressing Congressional disapproval of RHNDA & HRAA have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Similar measures were introduced in the Senate in March.
A coalition of schools, charities, pro-life and other advocacy organizations urges citizens to call their Senators and Representatives quickly (a vote in the House could come as early as today) to urge them to defend the First Amendment for everyone by killing these pernicious DC bills.
Additionally, people are encouraged to spread the word on social media using the hashtag #freesince1791, indicating that all anyone is demanding is the right to continue living their own lives and exercising the basic freedoms they’ve always enjoyed.