Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) on Wednesday introduced a resolution aimed at overturning the Human Rights Amendment Act, a bill passed by the D.C. Council in December 2014.
The act repeals the Armstrong Amendment, a 1989 law that carves out an exemption for religiously-affiliated educational institutions by not requiring them to abide by provisions that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Both Cruz and Lankford insist that the act violates the freedom of religion of educational institutions who might otherwise be forced to recognize gay students groups, in opposition to their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality, as well as those who choose to attend those schools. Lankford is the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, which has jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.
“The D.C. Council is attempting to force religious institutions to provide services, make employment decisions, or participate in activities that directly violate their faith,” Cruz said in a statement. “No government entity should be able to coerce organizations — whether they be nonprofits or religious schools — into…promoting gender policy that is contrary to the organization’s fundamental mission.”
“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,” Lankford said. “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.”
Under the Home Rule Act that governs the District of Columbia, all legislation passed by the D.C. Council must undergo a 30-day period of congressional review. The Human Rights Amendment Act was transmitted to Congress by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) on Mar. 6, and is set to become law on April 17, unless both houses of Congress pass a resolution of disapproval and the president signs it into law.
Cruz and Lankford’s actions are the latest in the squabble between conservative- and liberal-leaning groups over the ramifications of repealing the Armstrong Amendment. On Monday, a coalition of more than 50 organizations, comprised of both D.C.-based and national advocacy groups, sent letters to members of Congress warning them not to attempt to overturn the bill. The coalition sprang into action after the District’s representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) engaged in a back-and-forth war of words with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been urging Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval to prevent the bill from going into effect. In the course of dueling press releases issued last week, Norton accused Heritage of “trying to start a new social issues war.” She also issued a press release Wednesday decrying Cruz and Lankford’s actions.
“The day after House Republicans released a budget calling for greater federalism and local control over local affairs, Senate Republicans have decided to take orders directly from the Heritage Foundation and its social conservative allies by attempting to interfere with the District of Columbia’s local laws,” Norton said. “…The anti-discrimination legislation passed by the District of Columbia, if applied correctly, will do no more than protect…students from discrimination for their sexual orientation at their own schools and universities. Fortunately, the courts have found a way to recognize constitutional rights simultaneously, such as the right to privacy, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of religion. Georgetown University, for example, has found a way to avoid discrimination against LGBT students while adhering to the university’s strong Catholic traditions.”
Norton’s specific reference of Georgetown carries particular heft, as the Armstrong Amendment was first introduced by Congress in retaliation against a 1987 ruling by the D.C. Court of Appeals that found that Georgetown University was required to offer an LGBT student group the same equal access to school facilities and services as other officially recognized groups. The liberal coalition, in its letter to congressional representatives, also argued that the repeal of the Armstrong Amendment would not open the Pandora’s box of hypothetical horribles that opponents of LGBT rights claim will happen if it is allowed to go into effect.
“The Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 restores the original intent of D.C.’s Human Rights Act to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination without requiring endorsement of any particular views of the subject, religious or secular,” the coalition members said in their letter. “As a result, educational institutions affiliated with religious organizations would not be allowed to prohibit LGBT student groups from using the school’s facilities and services. However, those institutions, consistent with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, would not be required to extend official recognition or accompanying funding to the LGBT student groups.”
But Ryan Anderson, a William E. Simon Fellow who researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty with the Heritage Foundation, pushed back against the liberal voices clamoring to allow the act to go into effect. Anderson told Metro Weekly that the repeal of the Armstrong Amendment “flies in the face” of the United States’ history regarding religious liberties.
“No religious schools are interested in ‘stigmatizing and denying’ LGBT students,” Anderson said, quoting an earlier Norton press release. “What we’re saying is that we shouldn’t use the government to coerce schools into violating their religious beliefs.”
Anderson said there is a distinction between government-run schools, where students have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and a private religious school, which exists as an alternative to public school. He also questioned whether there is a legitimate state interest in repealing a piece of legislation that has worked for both supporters and opponents of LGBT rights, without much controversy, for the past 25 years.
Anderson also vehemently objected to an earlier Norton statement that characterized Heritage’s lobbying of Congress as sparking a battle over social issues.
“Our brief simply asks Congress to return us to December 2014,” Anderson said. “The people who picked a ‘culture war’ battle were the D.C. councilmembers.”
But Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who now chairs the Judiciary Committee that had previously approved the Human Rights Amendment Act, objected to that charge.
“Passing the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 is not about starting a fight — it is about preventing discrimination,” McDuffie said in a statement. “Heritage’s statements, however, are another example of groups attempting to further disenfranchise residents of the District of Columbia by trying to overthrow laws duly passed by the District’s elected officials.”
Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), a newly-elected councilmember who had not yet been sworn in at the time the original bill was voted upon but has nonetheless been a supporter, also issued her own statement pushing back against the specter of congressional action to overturn the act.
“I fully support the repeal of the Armstrong Amendment because I believe that human rights apply to all people, and that a person’s sexual orientation should not impact their quality of life and access to basic rights,” Nadeau said. “This is the latest reminder that we live in the only major American city that has to ask permission from unaccountable representatives in Congress before governing itself. The residents of the District deserve independence from congressional meddling in our affairs.”