A D.C. City Council committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a bill to repeal a congressionally imposed exemption to the city’s Human Rights Act that allows religiously affiliated educational institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), author of the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014, said the measure enjoys strong support from his Council colleagues. He said he expects the full Council to pass the bill and Mayor Vincent Gray to sign it before the end of the Council’s 2014 legislative session.
“Discriminating against gay and lesbian people has no place in the District of Columbia,” Wells said during an Oct. 15 hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety minutes before the committee voted to approve the bill. Wells is chair of the committee.
“A law that would allow such discrimination, including of transgender people, must be rejected,” he said. “I’m proud to say this bill will do that.”
Among other things, the bill calls for removing from the city’s Human Rights Act language passed by Congress in 1989 known as the Armstrong Amendment, which was introduced by former U.S. Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.).
Armstrong introduced the amendment after a federal court upheld the city’s right to invoke the then existing D.C. Human Rights Act provision prohibiting Georgetown University from barring a newly formed gay student group from using university facilities to hold meetings and post meeting notices.
Georgetown, a Catholic Church-affiliated school, argued at the time that formally recognizing or funding a gay group would be contrary to church teachings.
But the court ruling upholding the city’s decision to require the university to comply with the D.C. Human Rights Act noted that the act did not force Georgetown to formally recognize or fund a gay rights group. The court said the act required Georgetown only to provide the same non-monetary, tangible benefits to the gay group as it does other campus groups or clubs. Georgetown has since changed its policy and currently operates an LGBT campus resource center and welcomes, although does not officially recognize, LGBT student groups.
Following the court decision, Armstrong pushed through his amendment based on Congress’s constitutional powers to pass or repeal laws that apply to the District of Columbia. The amendment has remained a part of the city’s Human Rights Act for 25 years.
It states, “Notwithstanding any other provision of the laws of the District of Columbia, it shall not be an unlawful discriminatory practice in the District of Columbia for any educational institution that is affiliated with a religious organization or closely associated with the tenets of a religious organization to deny, restrict, abridge, or condition the use of any fund, service, or benefit; the granting of any endorsement, approval, or recognition, to any person or persons that are organized for, or engaged in, promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief.”
“The exemption is a relic of a battle won long ago, and its repeal is an overdue bit of housekeeping,” said Richard Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in testifying for the repeal bill before a Council hearing last month.
Also testifying in support of the bill was Monica Palacio, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights, which enforces the Human Rights Act.
A representative of Catholic University testified against the bill, saying the legislation could force the church-affiliated college to recognize or support the views of campus groups that it believes contradict church teachings.
Four of the five members of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee who were present at Wednesday’s markup hearing and who voted for the bill were Wells and Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 3), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Anita Bonds (D-At-Large).
Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the fifth member of the committee, was absent from the hearing, which took place at the same time a mayoral candidates debate sponsored by the Washington Post and Channel 4 News was being held.
None of the three main mayoral candidates, including Bowser, Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), and former Council member Carol Schwartz, who’s running as an independent, have taken an official position on the bill.
Cheh, a professor at George Washington University School of Law, said that although Congress could potentially step in to block the Human Rights Amendment Act from taking effect, the Council has full legal authority to pass the bill.
“I don’t think we’re overturning an act of Congress per se,” Cheh told the Washington Blade after the hearing. “What we’re doing is we’re adopting it again ourselves,” she said, referring to the original language that prohibits religious educational institutions from discriminating based on sexual orientation.
“If they want to insist on it because they are the ultimate legislative authority for us, they can,” Cheh said. “But in the meantime we keep knocking at the door and saying this is how we want it to be there.”
Under the city’s home rule act, all bills passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor must undergo a 30-legislative day review by Congress. If Congress doesn’t act during that period to block or overturn a D.C. bill, it becomes law.
Should one or more members of Congress object to such a bill, they can introduce a resolution to overturn the D.C.-passed bill, which must be approved by a majority vote in both houses of Congress. Such a resolution must also be signed by the president.
Congressional opponents of D.C. legislation have often circumvented that approach by attaching an amendment or “rider” to the city’s annual appropriations bill to overturn a Council passed law or to impose a law on the city as Armstrong did in 1989.
A spokesperson for D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said Norton had no immediate comment on the prospects for the Human Rights Amendment Act clearing Congress.