Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Anti-Prejudice Laws Challenged

Prominent conservative and Catholic groups are urging Congress to overturn a pair of laws passed by the D.C. Council last year that prevent discrimination in the workplace based on contraceptive use or sexual orientation.

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014 prevents employers from taking action against workers, specifically from demoting or firing employees, based on their decision to use birth control or to seek an abortion, while the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 prevents religious educational institutions from discriminating against those who identify as LGBTQ.

Both unanimously passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the laws are currently under congressional review. Fifteen conservative and Catholic groups sent a letter to Congress on Feb. 5 urging them to overturn the laws, claiming that they violate freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association under the First Amendment and other federal legislation.

D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) defended the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act, saying that it would prevent mistreatment of workers who have used contraception or had an abortion.

“This protects the everyday workers that are working in these institutions. When somebody may get wind that a worker went out and used contraception or had an abortion and that doesn’t give with the employer, that doesn’t mean that they can fire the person,” Grosso said.

Republican leaders of Congress, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Oh.), who met with Mayor Bowser regarding the issue, wanted to amend the act to include that employers do not have to provide insurance for contraception.

Grosso said he believes these demands are irrelevant to the main ideas behind the legislation.

“We were like, this is ridiculous. It has nothing to do with the law that we passed,” Grosso said. “I think it would just codify something that we don’t want codified in our laws in the District of Columbia. It may still come up in March, but I’m going to probably work against it at that time and I think that my colleagues would support me.”

Grosso also introduced the Human Rights Amendment Act to repeal the Armstrong Amendment of 1989, which created an exemption allowing religious educational institutions ways to avoid following the gay non-discrimination law in the District.

The Armstrong Amendment was first passed after a case filed under the D.C. Human Rights Act forced Georgetown University to recognize a gay student organization. Although the D.C. Council and the court supported the student group, Congress passed the Armstrong Amendment, siding with Georgetown.

Despite Georgetown’s original involvement with the Armstrong Amendment, the university has not signed this repeal.
Director of Media Relations Rachel Pugh expressed the university’s compliance with D.C. laws, specifically highlighting the Human Rights Amendment Act.

“The Catholic and Jesuit tradition that animates our university emphasizes the inherent dignity and worth of all persons and calls us each to do our part to foster well-being, civility and respect for all members of our community. We thoughtfully comply with local D.C. laws and will continue to do so,” Pugh wrote in an email.

Despite Georgetown’s abstention from signing the repeal, it still denies certain student groups affiliation with and benefits from the university based on its Catholic principles.

“We have held to the principle of not granting access to benefits to student groups whose core mission is directly contrary to Catholic teaching. As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, Georgetown cannot support organizations whose stated purpose conflicts with Catholic moral teaching,” Pugh wrote. “For that reason, H*yas for Choice, a group whose constitution espouses ‘advocating for reproductive choice,’ is not eligible for access to university benefits.”

Grosso said that the potential denial of the Human Rights Amendment Act would exacerbate discrimination against the LBGTQ community.

“Unfortunately, like every other law in the District of Columbia that law had to go up for congressional review so it’s up for review now, but these conservative groups who I think just want to discriminate against the LGBTQ community decided that they were going to propose it,” Grosso said.

The backlash against the two laws originated from the disapproval of local Catholic and conservative groups but spread to national organizations. Among the 15 groups who signed the letter were Heritage Action for America, the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage, representatives from the Catholic University of America, the Archdiocese of Washington and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Lawrence Morris, General Counsel of The Catholic University of America, said that repealing the Human Right Act would force universities to change their approach to student life and education.

“Regarding the Human Rights Amendment Act, the original bill recognized the freedom of religious universities such as The Catholic University of America to shape their educational environments in ways that are consistent with the teaching of the church.  Repeal of this protection could force us into decisions regarding personnel or student life that would contradict such teaching,” Morris said.

Morris confirmed that, while they will not file a lawsuit, they will defend themselves against the new legislation.

“We do not expect to initiate a lawsuit over the new legislation, as we do not consider the laws to require us to do anything that contravenes our First Amendment freedoms.  But we will vigorously defend ourselves, relying both on the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in the event that a party brings an action against us grounded on the council’s legislation,” Morris said.

In order to overturn these two bills in Congress, the House and Senate would have to pass a resolution of disapproval, which would also have to be signed by President Barack Obama. Grosso said this sequence of events is unlikely.
Even if no resolution is passed, the groups aiming to repeal the bills could attach a rider to another piece of legislation, which they have done with other controversial issues in the past, including marijuana. The appeal for congressional intervention has provoked criticism from D.C. home rule advocates.

“I just find it bizarre that there is so much attention being paid for amendments that were trying to make to our Human Rights Act that we believe are just and right for the people of the District of Columbia, but that’s the way it goes,” Grosso said.

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