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Cruz, Lankford Move to Block D.C. Bills

Cruz moved to block a D.C. law Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Cruz moved to block a D.C. law Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and James Lankford of Oklahoma introduced resolutions of disapproval Wednesday to strike down two D.C. bills they say violate religious freedom.  

The resolutions target the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act, which the D.C. government approved in January. The conservative group Heritage Action for America has been lobbying members of Congress to introduce disapproval resolutions. The Heritage Foundation’s news site, “The Daily Signal,” first reported  that Cruz and Lankford introduced the resolutions.  

The resolutions come two days after a coalition of women’s rights and gay rights groups warned against interfering with these laws, arguing they protect against discrimination. But in the senators’ view, the laws infringe upon religious liberty.  

“What the D.C. Council has done is a major threat to the fundamental right to religious freedom for D.C. residents and organizations, and a brazen display of intolerance,” Lankford, who heads the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C., said in a statement to CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon. “The Constitution provides that all Americans enjoy the right to live a life in accordance with their convictions of faith. Limiting religious practice to a church building is a weekend hobby, not a personal faith. The First Amendment is first for a reason — it cannot be ignored by the D.C. City Council.”  

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act seeks to prohibit employer discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. The D.C. Council unanimously approved a resolution on March 3 clarifying the act would not require employers to pay for insurance that covers reproductive health decisions, such as abortions. But conservatives argue the clarification does not go far enough, and employers would still be forced to act contrary to their religious beliefs.  

The second D.C. measure, the Human Rights Amendment Act, is actually an attempt to undo a 1989 congressional amendment known as the Nation’s Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act, which allowed religious educational institutions to “deny, restrict, abridge, or condition” funds, school facilities and services from gay groups. Proponents argue the new act protects gay student groups from discrimination, while opponents say it forces religious schools to recognize groups that are not in line with the school’s beliefs.  

Both bills were recently transmitted to Congress for the mandatory 30-legislative-day review period. According to the D.C. council legislative information system, that period is projected to end April 17.  

As with any D.C. bill, Congress has the power to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval during the review period in an attempt to overturn the law. But that resolution has to pass both chambers and be signed by the president, which is unlikely considering President Barack Obama supports D.C. autonomy.  

Given the high threshold, disapproval resolutions are not as common. The last time a resolution was introduced was in 2010 to strike down the District’s medical marijuana law.  

According to the D.C. Code,  three joint resolutions of disapproval have taken effect since the 1973 Home Rule Act established the D.C. Council. The most recent resolution was in 1991, regarding a heights amendment act. The more common practice for lawmakers to affect D.C. social policy is by attaching riders through appropriations bills and dictating how D.C. can spend local or federal money.  

Despite the low probability the president would sign the resolutions, the act of introducing a resolution striking down a D.C. law was met with outrage, particularly from Kim Perry, executive director of DC Vote, which advocates for District autonomy. Perry called the resolutions “absurd,” “un-American” and “undemocratic.”  

“It is largely symbolic but, listen, it’s incredibly hypocritical,” Perry said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s got to be one more example of members who run campaigns on the rhetoric of limited federal government … and again are exerting their federal overreach.”  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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