Metro Weekly

Norton calls out First Amendment Defense Act for threatening D.C.’s civil rights laws

Bill would essentially gut D.C.'s pro-LGBTQ laws by treating the District as an extension of the federal government

U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is criticizing U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the chief sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act, for provisions in the bill that would essentially gut the District’s civil rights laws extending protections to the LGBTQ community.

Lee and 21 other senators introduced FADA earlier this month to allow individuals who claim they have a “sincerely held religious belief” opposing homosexuality or same-sex marriage, or businesses operated by such individuals, from being punished by the government for discriminating against LGBTQ people.

The bill is so broadly written that it would also condone discrimination against single mothers, divorcees, those who engage in premarital sex, or anyone else whose lifestyle does not comport with a person’s religious beliefs, no matter how radical those beliefs may be.

However, Lee’s bill has a particularly pernicious effect on the District of Columbia.

As written, FADA treats the District of Columbia as a part of the federal government, and refuses to recognize local control, which was given to the District under the Home Rule Act of 1973.

That means that the District’s laws providing robust protections from discrimination for the LGBTQ community would essentially be undermined, as there is no way for the District’s Office of Human Rights to enforce the law or punish violators.

The wording in the bill is also vague enough that it could be interpreted as handcuffing courts from penalizing individuals who discriminate against LGBTQ people, or allowing defendants in private civil suits to cite FADA’s guarantees of protection for those with “sincerely held religious beliefs” as a defense.

Norton specifically called out U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, the chief sponsor of the legislation, for that provision ignoring the District’s civil rights laws.

She also noted that Lee’s press release announcing the introduction of the bill and a Q&A accompanying the release only describe the effect FADA has on the federal government, while glossing over the fact that the District is defined as an extension of the federal government.

“Senator Lee has misled the public about the impact of his discriminatory attack on a local jurisdiction and its residents,” Norton said in a statement. “He prides himself on his support for limited government, as his biography on his website indicates, but this bill abuses the federal government’s power over the local D.C. government, which has granted the District home-rule rights over local legislation.

“Our democracy, based on federalism, recognizes, even applauds, our differences by allowing them to be acted out locally.  District residents, like Americans in many other jurisdictions, value LGBT residents by protecting them from discrimination and intend to continue to do so,” Norton added. “I ask Senator Lee to remove the District from his bill.  If he won’t do so, the least he should do is be honest about what his bill does.”

Norton also objected to the restrictions that FADA places on the federal government, noting that the current federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act already provides significant protections for those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage or homosexuality. She vowed to attempt to block any efforts to push through FADA, particularly in its current form, calling the bill an “attack” on the District’s LGBTQ community and its right to self-government.

“We will not allow Republicans to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of religious liberty,” Norton added.

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