March 19, 2015 at 7:13 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Senators introduce resolution to kill D.C. LGBT rights measure

Ted Cruz, United States Senate, Republican Party, Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced a resolution in the Senate on Wednesday calling on Congress to kill the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014, a city approved bill that would protect LGBT students from discrimination at D.C. based religious schools.

The two senators introduced a separate resolution on Wednesday calling for killing another bill passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act.

That measure would prohibit D.C. employers from discriminating against employees based on their personal reproductive health decisions, including a decision to have an abortion. City officials dispute claims by opponents that the bill could force employers, including religious organizations, to pay for employee abortions through health insurance plans.

“The D.C. Council is attempting to force religious institutions to provide services, make employment decisions, or participate in activities that directly violate their faith,” Cruz said in a statement, referring to both bills.

In his own statement, Lankford said the two bills represent a “major threat to the fundamental right to religious freedom for D.C. residents and organizations, and a brazen display of intolerance.”

In their respective statements announcing their introduction of the disapproval resolutions neither Cruz nor Lankford mentioned that the Human Rights Amendment Act was an LGBT related bill. They referred to it only as a measure that could force religious schools to support activities that “violate the tenets of their faith.”

But Cruz and Lankford’s resolutions came after several prominent conservative religious organizations, including the anti-gay Family Research Council, launched a lobbying campaign calling on Congress to kill the two bills. Those groups specifically mentioned that the Human Rights Amendment Act was a homosexual rights measure that threatened religious schools.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 58 LGBT advocacy, civil liberties, and reproductive rights groups, anticipating attempts by members of Congress to block to the two bills, issued a joint statement on Tuesday urging Congress not to kill the two bills and disputing claims that the bills would in any way infringe upon religious rights or freedom.

“Unsurprisingly, opponents of these bills have unfairly mischaracterized them as ‘unprecedented assaults’ on religious liberty,” the statement says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The statement adds, “Religious liberty is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us the freedom to hold any belief we choose and the right to act on our religious beliefs, but it does not allow us to discriminate against or otherwise harm others.”

The Human Rights Amendment Act calls for repealing a 1989 law passed by Congress known as the Armstrong Amendment. The amendment exempts religious educational institutions in the city from having to comply with the D.C. Human Rights Act’s provision banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The amendment was authored by former Sen. William Armstrong (D-Colo.). To the dismay of LGBT activists, it inserted language in the city’s Human Rights Act allowing religious schools such as Catholic University to deny meeting space or privileges offered to other student clubs for a student organization that engages in “promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief.”

The bill approved by the D.C. Council and signed by Bowser would repeal that clause in the Human Rights Act, restoring the act to its earlier version that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But under the city’s congressionally enacted Home Rule Charter, Congress can prevent any bill passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor from becoming law if the House and Senate each pass by majority vote and the president signs a resolution of disapproval. The Home Rule Charter requires that a disapproval resolution must be passed and signed by the president before the end of a required congressional review of all D.C. bills that lasts for 30 legislative days and which usually consists of 60 calendar days.

D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said in a statement on Wednesday that she and the city’s allies in Congress have prevented disapproval resolutions targeting D.C. laws from being enacted since 1991.

“The day after House Republicans released a budget calling for greater federalism and local control over local affairs, Senate Republicans have decided to take orders directly from the Heritage Foundation and its social conservative allies by attempting to interfere with the District of Columbia’s local laws,” Norton said in a statement released on Wednesday.

“In no other jurisdiction in America with similar laws could such a naked violation of local self-government take place,” she said.

“The anti-discrimination legislation passed by the District of Columbia, if applied correctly, will do no more than protect residents from facing discrimination by their employers because of their most personal reproductive health decisions and students from discrimination for their sexual orientation at their own schools and universities,” Norton said.

The coalition of advocacy groups supporting the two bills says in its statement that repealing the Armstrong amendment would limit the scope of the D.C. Human Rights Act’s authority over religious schools to restrictions established by a 1987 D.C. Court of Appeals ruling.

The ruling stemmed from a case brought against Georgetown University by a gay student group that the university refused to recognize. The ruling held that Georgetown was required under the D.C. Human Rights Act to offer gay and lesbian student groups the same equal access to school facilities and services offered to other groups officially recognized by the university.

“The sensibly balanced ruling didn’t require the school to fund or extend official recognition as a student group, holding instead that Georgetown simply could not deny access to the same facilities and services to the unrecognized gay student group that it offered to officially recognized groups,” the coalition statement says.

“As a result,” the statement says, “educational institutions affiliated with religious organizations would not be allowed to prohibit LGBT student groups from using the school’s facilities and services. However, those institutions, consistent with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, would not be required to extend official recognition or accompanying funding to the LGBT student groups” if such recognition or funding conflicts with their religious beliefs.

In a development viewed with interest by supporters of the D.C. bill seeking to repeal the Armstrong Amendment, Georgetown did not join other groups and institutions – including Catholic University – that are calling on Congress to kill the Human Rights Amendment Act.

Norton noted in her statement Wednesday that Georgetown “has found a way to avoid discrimination against LGBT students while adhering to the university’s strong Catholic traditions.”

It couldn’t immediately be determined late Wednesday how many other members of the Senate and House planned to sign on to the disapproval resolutions introduced by Cruz – who’s considered a potential GOP presidential candidate – and Lankford.

Capitol Hill observers have said disapproval resolutions targeting D.C. bills are difficult to pass in most cases, especially when a sitting president like President Obama would be expected to veto such a resolution.

Observers point out that congressional opponents of D.C. bills sometimes use another approach that includes attaching an amendment or “rider” to D.C.’s annual budget bill preventing the city from using any of its funds to implement a bill that clears the congressional review process and becomes law. The city’s annual budget must be approved by Congress under the city’s Home Rule Charter.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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