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New D.C. laws violate religious liberty, leaders say

WASHINGTON (BP) — The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has joined other religious, pro-life and pro-family organizations in urging Congress to reject new District of Columbia laws they say violate their First Amendment rights.

The ERLC and its allies, which all have offices in D.C., said the two measures are “unprecedented assaults” on their organizations. The laws “violate the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment and other federal law,” they said.

The organizations took issue with the laws in Feb. 5 letters to the Senate and House of Representatives. They asked congressional members to rescind the measures during the period they have to review laws approved by the government of the country’s capital. Congress has 30 legislative days to disapprove the bills after the D.C. Council forwards them to the Senate and House.

The laws are:

— The Reproductive Health Non-discrimination Amendment Act, which mandates employers “shall not discriminate” on the basis of “reproductive health decision making,” which could include abortion and contraception for an employee or dependent.

— The Human Rights Amendment Act, which eliminates a long-standing exemption from the district’s gay rights law for religious-affiliated, educational institutions.

In each case, the ERLC and its allies said the law would force them to act in contradiction to their religious beliefs and mission by supporting those who oppose their teachings on the sanctity of human life and sexuality.

ERLC President Russell Moore, one of the letter signers, described as “breathtaking” the district’s “total disregard for religious freedom and the First Amendment in passing these laws.”

“Once again we see the kind of pluralism that the sexual revolution is interested in — one that seeks to stamp out and silence any and all opposition,” Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press.

Casey Mattox, senior counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and a letter signer, said in a written statement, “The government has no business forcing pro-life and faith-based organizations to betray the very values they were created to advance. Congress should exercise its authority to stop these hopelessly illegal bills rather than allow D.C. officials to waste American taxpayer dollars defending the indefensible.”

In addition to the ERLC and ADF, other letter signers represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Catholic University of America, American Center for Law and Justice, March for Life Education and Defense Fund, Family Research Council, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Concerned Women for America, Knights of Columbus, Eagle Forum, Archdiocese of the Military Services, Heritage Action for America and National Organization for Marriage.

In order to prevent the D.C. laws from taking effect, both houses of Congress must pass a resolution of disapproval. The president also must sign it.

The D.C. government has demonstrated some concern over its own legislation. New Mayor Muriel Bowser has signed the measures but has not sent them to Congress, according to The Washington Post. Bowser recently sent the D.C. Council an emergency bill that clarifies the reproductive health measure would not require employers to provide insurance coverage to workers for abortion and contraception, The Post reported.

The ERLC and the other organizations said the emergency proposal is insufficient. It may address concerns regarding insurance coverage, but it fails to solve other constitutional problems, their letters to Congress said.

The reproductive health legislation “prevents religious institutions, other faith-based employers, and pro-life advocacy organizations from making employment decisions consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs or their moral and ethical views about the sanctity of human life,” the letters said. “For example, the law requires our organizations to hire or retain individuals whose speech or public conduct contradicts the organizations’ missions, and could be read to require our organizations to subsidize elective abortions through their employee health plans.”

The human rights law, the letters said, “requires religiously affiliated educational institutions to endorse, sponsor, and provide school resources to persons or groups that oppose the institutions’ religious teachings regarding human sexuality.”

Both laws contravene the First Amendment, as well as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), according to the letters. RFRA requires government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.

The ERLC and the other signers told Congress, “Most of us do not engage in the city’s legislative affairs, but we must do so now with one voice” against the new laws.

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