The Washington D.C. city council has stripped religious schools of legal protection against certain discrimination lawsuits, voting unanimously to repeal an exemption that had been in place for decades. Under city rules, it is an “unlawful discriminatory practice” for a school to limit any use of facilities, services, or programs to someone based on “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.” However, an amendment inserted by Congress in a federal appropriations bill 25 years ago offered an exemption for religiously-affiliated schools or schools “closely associated with the tenets of a religious organization,” allowing them to restrict funds, facilities and endorsements based on their religious convictions regarding homosexuality. This provision, dubbed the “Armstrong Amendment,” came after Georgetown University refused to recognize a pro-gay student group, explained Michael Scott of the D.C. Catholic Conference. Sen. William Armstrong authored the exemption, called the Nation's Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act, which allowed religiously-affiliated schools in D.C. to withhold funds, facilities and approval from people and groups “that are organized for, or engaged in, promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief." But that exemption is now gone, thanks to a Dec. 2 vote by the city council to overturn that provision. The council voted “unanimously without comment or changes” to pass the Human Rights Amendment of 2014 which included the repeal of the code, Scott explained. Congress has 30 days to void the action by the city council. Scott offered written testimony before the city council in October. He maintained that repeal of the religious exemption would be an “unjustifiable violation of these Schools’ rights to advance their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding human sexuality.” “The Act disregards one of our nation’s first and most cherished freedoms, the right to exercise religion free from government interference,” he said. “Schools are not only obligated by their religion, but also permitted by the Constitution to freely teach and act according to their faith.” “Neither the Council, nor the Act’s proponents, have provided compelling reasons sufficient to justify such a heavy burden on the schools’ religious practice, as required by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA),” he continued. Scott said that while the overturning of the exemption affects schools, “it is an open question whether a religious seminary or an institution with educational programs, educational instruction, or an educational component would be implicated by the legislation.” Lawrence J. Morris, general counsel for The Catholic University of America, told CNA that “we do not expect to make any policy changes” as a result of the city council vote. He explained: “we believe that the new law, if it goes into effect, would have to be read with the limiting and illuminating perspective of the First Amendment, which permits us to operate our religious university in accordance with our deeply held religious beliefs.” Morris added that The Catholic University of America “would not expect to initiate a suit” on the matter, but if it is brought to court they would invoke the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “[W]e do not consider the law to require us to do anything that contravenes our First Amendment freedoms,” he said, adding that in court “we would be defending our rights rather than bringing an action challenging the new law as such.”
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