Metro Weekly

D.C. nondiscrimination laws go into effect today

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

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

Two contested D.C. Council bills appear to have survived a 30-day congressional review period required of all District legislation and are slated to go into effect today, Saturday, May 2. Although the laws may face future challenges, the District’s congressional representative, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has declared victory on behalf of women and their families, as well as LGBT students.

The first bill, the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act (RHNDAA), was designed to prohibit employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees and their spouses and dependents for reproductive decisions, such as whether to use birth control or undergo in vitro fertilization to become pregnant, that violate the employer’s purported moral or religious beliefs.

The second measure, the Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAA), is a pro-LGBT amendment to the District’s Human Rights Act that eliminates the Armstrong Amendment, an exemption to the Human Rights Act that allows religious or religiously-affiliated educational institutions to discriminate against LGBT students or anybody else who advocates on behalf of homosexuality. In practice, this means that while religious schools, like Catholic University or Georgetown University, would not have to officially recognize LGBT student groups, they would no longer be able to deny them equal access to funding and facilities that is granted to other campus groups. 

Both laws gained the attention of congressional Republicans, who introduced resolutions of disapproval aimed at overturning them. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced their own resolutions, while Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) introduced her own resolution aimed at overturning the RHNDAA law and Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.) introduced another aimed at reversing the HRAA law. Although the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR), which oversees matters related to the District, refused to hear Hartzler’s bill, the committee did approve Black’s bill and move it to the floor for a full vote of the House, marking the first time in more than two decades that Congress had attempted to overturn a District law.

Republicans brought the bill to a vote late Thursday evening, a move that Democrats alleged was intended to conceal their actions and avoid criticism for voting against women’s reproductive rights. After extended debate, the resolution passed by a 228-192 margin. Thirteen Republicans, mostly from upstate New York, the Philadelphia suburbs and other swing districts, voted with the bulk of Democrats against the resolution. Three pro-life Democrats — Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — voted to overturn the Council-approved law. 

Republicans’ victory on the RHNDAA resolution was short-lived and largely symbolic, both because the end of the 30-day congressional review period is at its end, and because, to be successful, the resolution would have had to be passed by the Senate and signed by President Obama, who had threatened to veto it. But that does not mean the fight over either D.C. Council bill is over, as congressional Republicans are expected to try and overturn both acts by withholding appropriations money for the District in the upcoming budget fights. And even if Democrats and their allies win the appropriations fight, opponents of the law are likely to challenge both of them in the courts, arguing that the acts, as written, violate the religious liberty of employers and religiously-affiliated educational institutions. 

Nontheless, Norton issued a statement celebrating the end of the congressional review period and the significant number of Republicans who had crossed over to oppose the resolution of disapproval. 

“On a night when we expected no Republicans to vote against the disapproval resolution, we got 13 Republicans to vote no in an ultra-conservative House,” Norton said. “The combination of the Republican resumption of the war on women and the overturning of a local law by the House, whose mantra is local government empowerment and control, will not be lost on the public…. House leadership did not relish this fight and allowed the disapproval resolution to move forward at the last minute only after being pressed by several outside groups and a new far-right Republican caucus that often opposes the Republican leadership…. With help from the national coalition of organizations that worked so effectively with us, D.C. now is in good shape for the appropriations fight.”

Because both women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights are potentially under fire in the upcoming appropriations fight, a coalition of organizations comprised of supporters of abortion rights, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood and Catholics for Choice, and pro-LGBT groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBTQ Task Force, have banded together to oppose any attempts to undermine either D.C. law, including any so-called “deals” where one measure would be overturned in exchange for leaving the other intact. 

The House Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus has also previously spoken out against any attempt to curtail either women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights. 

“Congress should not attempt to interfere with the District of Columbia’s efforts to protect employees from workplace discrimination, which undermines workers’ ability to make their own healthcare decisions in consultation with their doctors and loved ones,” the caucus said in a statement prior to Thursday night’s vote. “Congress should not be subverting the will of D.C.’s elected officials for the sole purpose of enabling discrimination against LGBT students or any other group.”

The caucus also warned of other future attempts to undermine LGBT progress, as has occurred in some states with the introduction of so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRA laws. 

“While our nation has taken significant leaps forward in extending basic fairness and protections under the law to LGBT Americans, we know we must remain vigilant against efforts to turn back the clock,” the statement continued. “If we have learned anything from the recent fights in Indiana and Arkansas, it is that we will undoubtedly see future attempts to enable discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus will oppose every effort to do so and will continue to work to ensure that all Americans are protected from discrimination in all facets of life.”

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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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