Metro Weekly

Norton hits back at Heritage Foundation over Human Rights Amendment Act

Conservative think tank calls on Congress to overrule repeal of Human Rights Act exemption for religious schools

U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton Photo by Todd Franson

U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton
Photo by Todd FransDC’on

D.C.’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress slammed conservative think tank Heritage Foundation for its attempts to convince the D.C. Council to abandon plans to alter the District’s Human Rights Act.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on Tuesday struck out against efforts to overturn two bills recently passed by the council that are currently under congressional review.  One of those bills repeals a provision in the D.C. Human Rights Act that exempts religiously-affiliated educational institutions in the District from abiding by nondiscrimination policies.

The exemption, known colloquially as the Armstrong Amendment, was introduced by former U.S. Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.). It was a response to an appeals court decision that found Georgetown University had violated the Human Rights Act by denying equal treatment to a gay student group. Under the amendment, religiously-affiliated educational institutions may be able to “deny, restrict, abridge or condition the use of any fund, service, facility, or benefit, or the granting of any endorsement, approval, or recognition to a person or group that either promotes or condones homosexuality.” In December, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to repeal the Armstrong Amendment, which would force such institutions to abide by provisions that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a Mar. 9 policy brief, the Heritage Foundation claimed that repealing the Armstrong Amendment would force private and religious schools to recognize LGBT student groups or host a gay pride day on campus, thereby violating the beliefs on which the educational institutions were founded.

“If the Human Rights bill goes into effect, it will severely infringe on the ability of D.C. religious schools to operate according to their religious beliefs,” according to the brief’s authors, Ryan Anderson and Sarah Torre. “After all, many religions believe that we are created male and female and that male and female are created for each other. The government should not force religious institutions to violate these beliefs.”

Anderson and Torre, speaking on behalf of Heritage, urged Congress to pass a “resolution of disapproval” aimed at overruling the D.C. bill eliminating the Armstrong Amendment. But the foundation also voiced support for the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act,” a piece of legislation introduced during the 113th Congress by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that is expected to be introduced in this Congress. The bill seeks to prohibit the government from discriminating against any individual or group, whether nonprofit or for-profit, that believes that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and that sexual relations are reserved for marriage, in the areas of tax policy employment, licensing, accreditation or contracting. Heritage Foundation has also expressed support for similar measures to be passed at the state level through so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” or RFRAs. Several states have introduced RFRAs or similar legislation in recent months, including Virginia, where such a bill was defeated in subcommittee.

In response to Heritage’s calling on Congress to overturn D.C.’s legislation, Norton pushed back against the idea of congressional interference.

“The Heritage Foundation and its social conservative allies are trying to start a new social issues war using District of Columbia local laws in a Congress that has yet to show it can govern the nation,” she said. “They picked the wrong jurisdiction, and they picked the wrong issues…. We are not going to have our LGBT students stigmatized and denied by their own universities and schools. We are already working with a broad coalition representing local and national organizations to defend D.C.’s local anti-discrimination laws from congressional interference.”

Congress has 30 business days from Mar. 6, when the bill was first submitted to Congress by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), during which it may review the legislation and attempt to overturn or block the legislation from taking effect.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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