The Republican-controlled U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week voted to kill an amendment to a D.C. school voucher bill calling for protecting LGBT students from discrimination in private and religious schools that receive government funding.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) introduced the amendment at a March 10 committee markup hearing on a bill reauthorizing the Scholarships for Opportunity Results Act, known as SOAR.
Congress first passed the controversial SOAR Act in 2003 to provide federal funds for school vouchers to pay the tuition for low-income D.C. students to enroll in private and religious schools. The law only applies to D.C.
Some LGBT activists have opposed the voucher program because it provides government funds for religious schools that are exempt from the city’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity among other categories of protections.
Watson Coleman’s amendment called for inserting the terms sexual orientation and gender identity into the list of protected classes under the SOAR Act.
The committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), defeated the amendment by a vote of 22 to 17. Those voting no included 22 of the 24 Republicans who sit on the committee. Two of the GOP members, Rep. William Hurd (R-Texas) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) did not vote.
On the Democratic side, 17 of the 18 Democrats on the committee vote for the amendment. Rep. Gerald Connelly (D-Va.) did not vote.
Among those voting for the amendment was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) who is allowed to vote in committee but not on the House floor. Norton has been a longtime supporter of LGBT rights.
Stephanie Franklin, a spokesperson for the D.C. Office of Human Rights, which enforces the city’s Human Rights Act, said the act would apply to non-religious private schools receiving SOAR Act funds through student tuition.
Franklin said the OHR has interpreted the Human Rights Act to also apply to religious schools under certain circumstances. She said the act would allow religious schools to limit hiring of employees and the acceptance of students to those who are members of their schools’ religious denomination.
But she said once an employee is hired or a student is accepted the Human Rights Act could in some circumstances prevent the schools from discriminating against such employees or students.
“However, we must decide on a case-by-case basis,” Franklin said.