Editorial: Congress should block two D.C. laws that undermine religious freedom
Feb. 27, 2015
From before the time that Washington, D.C., became our nation’s capital, Catholic institutions in what is now the District of Columbia have served the common good through educational and charitable outreach. Now, in 2015, two recently enacted laws passed by the D.C. City Council and signed by the city’s new mayor, Muriel Bowser, have been assailed by local and national religious organizations and pro-life advocacy groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington, as “unprecedented assaults” on religious freedom and conscience rights. Those groups – which include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Catholic University of America and the Knights of Columbus – have urged Congress to disapprove the District’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA) and Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (HRAA). RHNDA expands the definition of sex discrimination under D.C. law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “reproductive health decisions.” As a result, religious, faith-based and pro-life organizations’ hands are tied if an employee chooses to publicly make known his or her reproductive health decision that directly conflicts with the organization’s own sincerely-held beliefs. In other words, religious, faith-based and pro-life groups cannot ensure that their own employees support the mission and principles of their organization without risking a lawsuit. HRAA would require religiously affiliated schools in the District of Columbia to endorse, fund and provide other benefits to groups that are organized to promote views that are directly contrary to the schools’ mission and sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage and human sexuality. This measure would seemingly force a school like The Catholic University of America to recognize, endorse and provide funding or facilities for a gay rights student group or sponsor a gay pride march on campus, contrary to Church teaching. As the religious and pro-life groups noted in their letters to members of Congress, both D.C. laws are unconstitutional and “violate the freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment and other federal law.” Representatives of the Archdiocese of Washington and those other groups testified against both measures and met in good faith numerous times with D.C. councilmembers and their staff in an attempt to resolve their concerns at a local level. Testifying against RHNDA, Cynthia DeSimone Weiler, the chancellor and general counsel of the Archdiocese of Washington, noted, “The archdiocese opposes this bill because if enacted, it would undermine the ability of religious employers to operate their organizations according to their religious beliefs.” She was joined in testifying against the measure by Michael Scott, the director of the D.C. Catholic Conference and the director of public policy for the archdiocese. In a letter to D.C. councilmembers about RHNDA, Anthony Picarello Jr., the associate general secretary and general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “No organization should be required to hire and retain persons whose speech and conduct hinder or contradict the organization’s identity and purpose. This is a matter of constitutional right and common sense.” Despite those efforts, the bills were made into law, and given the constitutional matters at stake, the archdiocese and the other groups are forced to appeal to Congress to intervene. One wonders if the D.C. councilmembers would pass a law forcing them and their colleagues to hire and retain staff members who publicly opposed their legislative priorities. Yet they would force Catholic institutions, pro-life groups and groups that believe in marriage between a man and a woman to do just that, to violate their own sincerely held beliefs. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen a growing trend among government officials and agencies to attempt to enact laws that erode and undermine the religious freedom and conscience rights of people and organizations who disagree with their views on issues like abortion rights, contraception and same-sex marriage. One example of this is the HHS mandate that would force Catholic institutions to violate Church teaching by facilitating employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations, which has been challenged in court by a wide range of groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington and even the Little Sisters of the Poor. These lawmakers and government bodies presumably believe that their beliefs regarding unlimited abortion rights, universal free access to birth control, and redefining marriage should trump the first freedom, religious liberty, and the freedom of speech and association of those with whom they disagree. All Americans of good will, whatever their religious beliefs or political parties, should oppose such government coercion, and we urge Congress to stand for religious freedom and freedom of conscience by blocking RHNDA and HRAA.
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