Could two new laws suffocate the Catholic Church in DC?

Could two new laws suffocate the Catholic Church in DC?

National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. on Jan. 22, 2015. Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. on Jan. 22, 2015. Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.

.- The U.S. bishops and several other Catholic and pro-life groups are asking Congress to nullify two new Washington, D.C. laws that they say could choke their ability to operate according to their religious beliefs.

The legislation amounts to “unprecedented assaults upon our organizations,” the coalition of groups stated in a letter to all members of Congress. “Both laws violate the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment and other federal law.”

After a bill is signed into law by the D.C. mayor, Congress reviews the law and can choose to overturn it. The president must honor the disapproval for the bill to be nullified. If no such approval occurs, the bill officially becomes law.  

The signatories asked Congress to overturn the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act of 2014 and the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014. Both unanimously passed the city council and were recently signed into law by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

If not nullified, the laws would affect employers including religious charitable, medical and educational institutions and pro-life groups.

The Human Rights Amendment Act overturned a decades-old exemption for religious schools and now compels them to recognize groups or persons that directly contradict their mission.

Catholic University’s general counsel Lawrence Morris explained to CNA that the bill “could force us into decisions regarding personnel or student life that would contradict such [Catholic Church] teaching.” For example, the university could have to officially recognize student groups that are fundamentally opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of homosexual behavior.

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act prohibits employers from hiring or firing employees based on their “reproductive health” decisions, such as abortion, sterilization, artificial contraception or in vitro fertilization.

Critics have warned that under the act, a Catholic school might have to retain a teacher who is openly opposed the Catholic mission of the school and violate Church teaching. A pro-life group could be forced to retain an employee who was openly pro-abortion and contradicted its pro-life mission.

Morris explained that the bill could prevent Catholic University “from taking action regarding employee conduct under certain circumstances.”

In addition, institutions could be required to cover contraceptives or abortions in their employee health plans. Morris said that the university could have to “provide coverage for drugs or procedures that violate our faith.”

In their letter to Congress, the coalition of concerned groups echoed the fear that the bill could be interpreted “to require our organizations to subsidize elective abortions through their employee health plans.” Since signing the bill, Mayor Bowser has introduced legislation clarifying that it says nothing about insurance coverage.

“Defending this law would be a waste of federal and local taxpayer funds,” the groups said.

“The law plainly violates the First Amendment, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), and possibly other federal laws and clearly contradicts the Supreme Court’s recent, unanimous ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School v. EEOC,” they stated.

In the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the federal government could not intervene in a religious institution’s hiring and firing decisions of ministers, even if those decisions were not made for religious reasons.

The letter’s signatories included John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America; Cynthia DeSimone Weiler, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Washington; Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Anthony R. Picarello, Jr., general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Also signing the letter were representatives of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Archdiocese of the Military Services USA, the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, and the National Organization for Marriage.

Speaking for Catholic University, Morris told CNA that “we do not expect to initiate a lawsuit over the new legislation, as we do not consider the laws to require us to do anything that contravenes our First Amendment freedoms.”

“But we will vigorously defend ourselves, relying both on the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in the event that a party brings an action against us grounded on the council’s legislation,” he added.

Tags: Religious freedom, Catholic Church, Washington DC