Catholic officials warn proposed D.C. Council bill threatens religious freedom
Friday, September 12, 2014 5:49 AM
Local and national Catholic officials have warned that a proposed bill being considered by the Council of the District of Columbia, the "Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014" threatens the religious liberty of groups operating in the nation's capital.
Michael Scott, the director of the D.C. Catholic Conference and the director of public policy for the Archdiocese of Washington, called the bill "unjust and unnecessary... If passed, the legislation would allow the city government to interfere within the local Church's governance and operations in violation of the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993."
Scott testified against the bill during a June hearing, along with Cynthia DeSimone, the archdiocese's chancellor, who said, "The Archdiocese opposes this bill because if enacted, it would undermine the ability of religious employers to operate their organizations according to their religious beliefs."
The bill states that: "An employer or employment agency shall not discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of or on the basis of the individual's or a dependent's reproductive health decision making, including a decision to use or access a particular drug, device or medical service, because of or on the basis of an employer's personal beliefs about such services."
DeSimone noted in her testimony that "because the Reproductive Health Nondiscrimination Act seems to hinder a religious employer's ability to take an employment action when an employee publicly repudiates the faith, we must vigorously oppose this bill."
In a letter expressing strong opposition to the bill, Anthony Picarello Jr., the associate general secretary and general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, 'This kind of bill represents a radical attempt to undermine religious and associational liberty, and to date has not passed anywhere in the country."
Picarello added that, "No organization should be required to hire and retain persons whose speech and conduct hinder or contradict the organization's identity and purpose. This is a matter of constitutional right and common sense."
In his letter to the council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Picarello said approval of the bill "would be a direct attack on the freedom of countless organizations to engage in advocacy and to provide services in the District of Columbia."
The bill was introduced at At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who previously served on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington and is a member of NARAL, ProChoice America. Those testifying in support of the bill included representatives of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington and Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights advocacy group that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said is not really Catholic because Catholics for Choice opposes Church teaching on the God-given dignity of all human life from conception to natural death.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, joined by seven other pro-life groups, submitted testimony against the bill, noting, "A pro-life organization must be free to choose to expend its resources to employ those whose words and actions uphold and do not detract from the organization's mission."
Writing in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "If passed in any locality, such legislation is sure to produce a new wave of conflict and litigation over the right of pro-life organizations, both secular and religious, to operate in accord with their own deepest convictions about life and procreation."
Scott later said, "Undoubtedly the legislation would also open the door for further interference on other important matters of faith and practice and thereby have a corrosive effect upon everyone's right to the free exercise of their religion in society. All people - not only Catholics - should be very concerned about the legislation's intent and impact."
The head of the D.C. Catholic Conference said the council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety is expected to hold a mark-up meeting on the bill in late September or early October, and if passed, it then proceeds to the Committee of the Whole which could vote to move the legislation for consideration by the Council of the District of Columbia.
Scott said people can express their opposition to the bill by contacting the Chairman Phil Mendelson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Council Member Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety at email@example.com.