A 1-2 Punch: Congress Tries to Turn Back Civil Rights

  Image by  Bryancalabro

Image by Bryancalabro

In 2014, the District of Columbia adopted the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act. The RHNDAA protects District employees and their dependents from discrimination based on their personal reproductive healthcare decisions, including for example, whether to use birth control or to treat infertility with IVF. It ensures that employees and their families can make their own private health decisions, including whether, when, and how to start a family and what the size of their family should be, without fear of losing their jobs or facing retribution from their employers. At heart, the RHNDAA is about simple fairness. People should be judged at work based on their performance, not on their personal, private reproductive healthcare decisions.

Unfortunately, since its passage, Congress has sought to undo this non-discrimination law, often invoking religious liberty concerns. Contrary to opponents’ claims, however, the RHNDAA does not violate religious freedom protections. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us the freedom to hold any belief we choose without government interference. It cannot, however, be used to trump others’ civil rights, and it should not justify striking down laws that ensure people are treated fairly.

The District of Columbia and Congress have a complicated relationship. Members of Congress can interfere with D.C.’s local laws even though they are not accountable to the residents of the District. Bills passed by the D.C. Council are subject to a thirty-day congressional review, and during that period, Congress can pass a “resolution of disapproval” to nullify the law.

Congress’ first attempted to stop RHNDAA last year through a “resolution of disapproval.” Reproductive rights, LGBT, religious liberty, and faith groupsincluding AU, joined forces to strongly oppose the resolution. We all recognized it for what it was, another attempt to use religion as an excuse to discriminate. The House passed the resolution, 228-192; the Senate didn’t debate it, recognizing that the District should be able to make its own decisions about how to protect its residents from discrimination.

But you know the old adage—if at first you don’t succeed ….

Last week, Congress tried a new tactic. Since Congress has control over a portion of the purse of the District, it has the power to prohibit the city from spending money on its own programs. So Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) (note he represents Alabama and not D.C.) offered an amendment to the bill that funds a part of DC’s budget that would prohibit the District from using any funds to enforce this law—essentially making the law null and void. The amendment passed 223-192. Americans United strongly opposed this amendment.

It’s now up to the Senate—and horse-trading in the upcoming negotiations on funding for the entire U.S. government—to see if Congress will curtail civil rights in the District. We’ll be watching.