Following pressure from conservative groups who say they are concerned about religious liberty, Republicans in Congress are attempting to wield their power over the District of Columbia to overturn a law that expands protections for employees’ reproductive health care decisions in the nation’s capital.
If the House Oversight Committee has its way, D.C. will not be allowed to enact a law approved last year that “expands discrimination on the basis of sex to include discrimination based upon the reproductive health decisions of an employee, their spouse, or their dependent.” House Republicans scheduled a vote this week on a resolution that would “disapprove” the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014 (RHNDA).
In practical terms, RHNDA would prevent D.C. bosses from retaliating against their workers for making health decisions they may not personally agree with. For instance, it would prevent religious employers from firing female employees who use contraception or become pregnant outside of marriage.
But right-wing groups aren’t happy about it. In February, leaders from several conservative groups — including the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America — sent a letter to House members arguing that the new law will prevent faith-based and pro-life organizations from “making employment decisions consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs or their moral and ethical views about the sanctity of human life.” That letter pressured Congress to intervene and upend RHNDA.
The arguments against RHNDA serve as a reminder that political fights over “religious liberty” often stem from efforts to roll back women’s access to basic health care. Over the past several decades, states have quietly expanded the scope of their religious liberty laws to allow medical professionals to refuse to provide health services that they oppose on religious grounds — and now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling, this framework threatens to be extended to employers.
It’s rare for Congress to successfully vote to get rid of a D.C. law. In order for that to happen, both the House and the Senate need to pass a joint resolution that then gets approved by the president. The Washington Post notes there’s only a slim chance that RHNDA will be undone with this particular political maneuver.
But the issue could rear its head again during the budget appropriations process, when Congress has the power to refuse to allocate funding for D.C. to actually implement its laws. This budget process often results in political showdowns with far-reaching consequences for residents of the District; last year, for instance, U.S. lawmakers used this avenue to undermine the implementation of D.C.’s marijuana legalization.
And the impending fight over RHNDA is just the latest example of overreach into reproductive health care policy in D.C., where local policies are often left to the whim of Congressional leadership. For years, Congress has prevented D.C. from using its own Medicaid funds to include abortion coverage in low-income women’s insurance plans, even though local lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to change that policy. Anti-abortion lawmakers often use their power over D.C. as a way to boost their conservative credentials, proposing abortion bans that would restrict access to the procedure among people who aren’t even their own constituents.
In a statement released on Monday, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton chastised members of Congress for treating D.C. like their “political playground.” She has vowed to fight back against efforts to roll back D.C’s new law, alongside other Democratic lawmakers who she says are “very much offended, frankly, by this major intrusion into the reproductive matters of Americans.”
Late Thursday night, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted 228 to 192 to block RHNDA. Before the vote, Holmes Norton took to the floor to blast her colleagues for interfering in D.C.’s legislative affairs, pointing out that “this resolution uniquely targets my district, but every member will get to vote on it except for me.” President Obama has already issued a veto threat.