Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Media Source: 
MetroWeekly (DC)
Author: 
John Riley

Representatives from civil liberties, LGBT and reproductive rights groups have bonded together to fight against congressional interference in D.C. after a U.S. House of Representatives committee last Wednesday took aim at D.C. Council-approved law prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees for their reproductive health decisions. 

Every year, as part of the appropriations process for the upcoming fiscal year, the District of Columbia must have its budget approved by Congress — even for plans involving non-federal funds. As part of the process, members of congress are frequently able to attach congressional riders — typically controversial amendments that dictate the terms of how and when money can or cannot be spent — to a larger spending bill. The addition of a controversial measure that might not necessarily pass as a standalone bill is a way to sneak the provision into law. Because the president can only decide whether or not to veto the whole bill rather than individual line items, many riders can be successfully introduced and implemented, as the president is usually less willing to expend political capital to fight against a single provision.

Last Wednesday, the House Committee on Appropriations approved a rider to the 2016 appropriations bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.), that seeks to prevent the District from using its own funds to enforce the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act (RHNDAA), which was unanimously approved by the D.C. Council last year. Conservatives claim that the law infringes on the freedom of religion of business owners who feel their employees’ reproductive health decisions may violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. 

As written — and as clarified by follow-up temporary legislation intended to explain the law’s intent — RHNDAA prevents employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees, their spouses and dependents for their reproductive decisions, such as if a woman has previously had an abortion, has opted to use birth control, or has undergone in vitro fertilization to become pregnant. In light of recent Supreme Court rulings, most notably in the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case, all of those reproductive decisions may be fodder for an employer who feels that such decisions violate their religious or moral beliefs.

Both RHNDAA and the Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAAA) — another bill unanimously passed by the D.C. Council that prohibits religiously-affiliated educational institutions from discriminating against LGBT students or groups — were previously targeted earlier this year when Senate and House members introduced resolutions of disapproval aimed at overturning both laws. The attempts failed, with the Senate taking no action on either and the full House of Representatives voting only to overturn RHNDAA. As a result of congressional inaction and delays, both measures went into effect in May.

With the threat of the congressional rider facing them, the coalition of LGBT and reproductive rights groups began canvassing D.C.-based employers and has cobbled together more than 100 small businesses to sign a letter addressed to members of Congress expressing their opposition to any riders attempting to undermine RHNDAA or HRAA.  Local businesses that were signatories of the letter include Cork Market & Tasting Room, Hill’s Kitchen, Lucky Bar, Mr. Henry’s Restaurant, The Pug, Oasis Hair Salon Unisex, Bulldog Finance Group and Busboys and Poets.

“We are employers in the District and we believe that all women should have the ability to make personal decisions that affect their reproductive health without our intrusion,” the letter reads. “We support freedom of religion and belief — but not the right to impose those beliefs on others. We stand united with the coalition of organizations, businesses and individuals who support these laws in urging you to oppose any actions that would strike down these two human rights laws.”

On Tuesday, at a coalition members’ press conference held at Cork Market, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) vowed to force a floor vote to try and remove the anti-RHNDAA rider. She also noted that two Republicans on the Appropriations Committee previously broke with their party to object to the rider, and indicated there may be more members willing to buck their party’s position. 

“I know there are many Republicans, including the leadership, that would rather not face volatile social issues as we enter into a presidential year,” Norton said. “Reproductive choice, where the overwhelming majority of Americans are with us? Go ahead. LGBT discrimination, after Indiana? Try it out on the House floor.”

Norton also added that if the rider remains intact in the appropriations bill, or the House attempts to introduce any other amendments that would seek to overturn D.C. laws, she and members of the coalition “will flood the press and social media in members’ states, to let them know that, instead of taking care of congressional business at home, members are busy meddling in the local affairs of another district, in violation of a cardinal principle of their party, that local control must be respected against the ‘big foot,’ as they call it, of the federal government.”

So far, there have been no attempts to introduce a similar rider prohibiting the enforcement of the LGBT nondiscrimination law. But Rae Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, noted that it was important to for both LGBT and reproductive rights groups to stand in solidarity with one another, and not just simply  because they have both been targeted by congressional conservatives.

“We recognize that those who move these harmful laws, or try to block the District’s fair laws, have a worldview that disavows both women’s empowered decisions about our bodies and our lives, and LGBTQ people’s empowered decisions about how to build our families,” Carey said. “Straight and LGBTQ people stand together in our need for reproductive rights and justice. And our respective legal rights and destinies have long been intertwined through Supreme Court decisions going back over 40 years, the latest of which, of course, was last year’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which served as the inspiration for Indiana’s recent blanket discrimination law — a law that was so broad in its original form that it could have been applied to anyone.”

Sasha Bruce, the senior vice president of campaigns and strategy of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that the decision to target the RHNDAA law specifically, was a political calculation that shows that congressional Republicans “are completely out of touch with the American mainstream.”

Meanwhile, Khalid Pitts, the owner of both Cork Market & Tasting Room and Cork Wine Bar, told Metro Weekly that he was not ashamed to speak out against the RHNDAA rider or any attempts to undermine other D.C. laws, and was not afraid that his decision to take a public position on the issue might cost him customers. 

“D.C. is a town built on small businesses. And many of those businesses are run by individuals like myself, who believe in progressive values, who believe in nondiscrimination, and want the best for their workers,” Pitts said. “One of the first things that a business owner wants to do is create a healthy work environment. One of the ways to do that is you allow private health decisions to be made by men and women, between themselves, their families, and their God. It’s not my decision to get engaged in that. And when we say ‘nondiscrimination,’ we mean nondiscrimination across the board.”

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