The Latest Target of 'Religious Freedom' Advocates: Reproductive Rights in the Nation's Capital

Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah is the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which voted late Tuesday night to disapprove the District's Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act.

Here’s a riddle for all you students of the American political system:

You are an elected representative, and you would like to curry favor in your home district among right-wing conservatives. One way to do this is to pass a local law sanctioning discrimination against LGBT citizens and women who choose to use birth control, under the guise of “religious freedom.” But you’ve recently discovered that such a law can backfire pretty spectacularly. Just look at poor Mike Pence, Republican governor of Indiana, regarded as presidential material not long ago. What other tactic, besides sanctioning religion-based discrimination, could you use?

Well, if you’re a member of Congress, you’ve got the people of the District of Columbia to whom you can teach a thing or two; they’re not allowed voting representation in Congress, so no need to worry. And because of the District’s peculiar status as the nation’s capital, and the congressional oversight that comes with it, you’ve got quite the stage for making your point. Feel free to use the liberal city as a fun experiment for your conservative policies.

In fact, that tactic was used just this week. On Tuesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines (I’ll bet you can guess what lines) to repeal—for the first time in 23 years—a recent Washington, D.C., law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of reproductive decisions.

There is only one Republican woman on the committee, Representative Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, who apparently did not speak in support of the resolution but did vote yes. Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (of nearby Utah), who also supports rolling back D.C.’s gun laws, unconvincingly assured the committee that they weren’t trying to change the District’s laws—just disapprove of them:

We’re simply voting yes or no on the resolution before us. The reason that I think this is there, and it’s an important one, is that we’re not here to amend D.C. laws. It’s yes or no. Do we disapprove or do we not disapprove. But to go back and amend that ourselves, I think would also, uh, would be a step too far.

The Republicans’ reason for "disapproving" the law—besides the fact that, well, they could—is that the law ostensibly threatens the “religious freedom” of anti-abortion employers in the District; employers who, because of sincerely held religious beliefs, would not want to hire or employ a woman who terminated a pregnancy or used birth control.

The law the committee is trying to upend is the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA), which was passed by the locally elected D.C. City Council in December. It was quickly assailed by anti-abortion groups as a violation of the First Amendment protection against government interference in religious establishments, because, they say, the D.C. law would “force” anti-abortion organizations to hire pro-choice employees.

Ignoring the fact that whether a woman is on the pill is not a normal question asked in a job interview (because, you might note, knowledge of your personal health care information is protected under health privacy law), RHNDA would also prevents employers from firing employees for making health care decisions they object to, such as becoming pregnant while not married. (Presumably, they would not be asking male employees whether they use condoms or whether a partner is on birth control.)

Chances are slim that the District’s law, designed to protect women from such employment discrimination, will be successfully repealed. That would require the House and the Senate to pass a joint resolution that would then need the signature of President Barack Obama (not likely to happen). But that’s where the other handy trick comes in: Congress can use the budget appropriations process to block D.C. from funding its own laws. They’ve used it before—most recently to block D.C.’s marijuana legalization.

The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was criticized as providing individuals and businesses the right to discriminate against LGBT people for religious reasons, attracted widespread, and predominately negative, national media attention last month. That was probably disappointing for conservatives who saw it as a convenient way to ignore the civil rights of those with whom they disagreed. The good news for them, though, is that there’s a city of more than half a million people outside their office door with which they can try it.

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