The Heritage Foundation

Factsheet #156

March 10, 2015

March 10, 2015 | Factsheet on

Congress Should Protect Religious Freedom in the District of Columbia

On March 6, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser transmitted to Congress two pieces of legislation that will seriously infringe on conscience rights and religious freedom in the District. Congress now has 30 legislative days to review the bills and can issue a Resolution of Disapproval on both bills to protect religious freedom in our nation’s capital.

Issue: Two Bills Infringe on Conscience Rights and Religious Liberty

The two euphemistically titled pieces of legislation are the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA), which discriminates against pro-lifers, and the Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAA), which violates the human right of religious liberty.

  • RHNDA could force employers in the nation’s capital to cover elective surgical abortions in their health plans and require pro-life organizations to hire individuals who advocate for abortion.
    • On March 3, the D.C. Council passed a supposed “fix” to RHNDA that would prevent the law from being used to mandate coverage of elective abortions—tacitly admitting the legislation contains serious legal flaws, but that temporary legislation only lasts 225 days. Six months after enactment, that “solution” will expire and pro-life organizations in the District could, once again, be forced to pay for life-ending procedures in their health plans.
  • HRAA rescinds the Nation’s Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act, popularly known as the Armstrong Amendment.
    • Passed by Congress in 1989, the Armstrong Amendment has protected religious schools in D.C. from being coerced by the government into “promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief.”
    • HRAA could force private and religious schools to recognize an LGBT student group or host a “gay pride” day on campus. The government should not force religious institutions to violate their beliefs.
  • Both these policies will saddle religious organizations and employers with a choice of complying with coercive laws that force them to violate their religious beliefs and organizational missions, or staying true to their beliefs in defiance of unjust laws.

Solution: Congress Has the Authority to Overrule the D.C. Bills

  • The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) empowers Congress to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the District. Congress delegated some of this authority in 1973 when it passed the Home Rule Act, which created a city council and mayor—but which retained authority for Congress to overrule bad policies enacted by the D.C. government.
  • During the 30 legislative day review period, Congress can pass a Resolution of Disapproval which, when signed by the President, effectively overturns the District legislation in question.

Talking Points: Congress Should Protect Religious Freedom

  • No governmental entity should force citizens to promote or pay for abortion, or violate their beliefs that men and women are made for each other in marriage.
  • In a nation founded on limited government and religious freedom, government should not attempt to coerce any citizen, association, business, or school into promoting or paying for abortion, or celebrating same-sex relationships.

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