WASHINGTON – Republicans pushed legislation toward House passage Thursday that would revoke a local District of Columbia law barring discrimination against workers who have abortions, the latest clash pitting claims of religious freedom against reproductive rights.
The GOP effort was largely symbolic because the capital city’s law takes effect on Saturday unless Congress first approves legislation blocking it that is also signed by President Barack Obama. The Senate is unlikely to consider the measure by then, and Obama would be all but certain to veto it, anyway.
However, Thursday’s debate served as a prelude to a debate expected later this year, when conservatives are expected to use budget legislation financing the city government to try blocking the local statute.
As lawmakers argued over the legislation, both sides cast the battle as one that was larger than a simple dispute over one community’s ordinances.
Opponents of the city’s law said it would force employers like churches, religious schools and anti-abortion organizations to violate their own religious beliefs and provide contraceptive coverage to their workers.
“This law targets these organizations and tramples their rights to exercise their views on respect for life,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a conservative presidential candidate, has also introduced Senate legislation that would overturn the district’s law, saying it “undermines religious liberty.”
Supporters of the local law said it would not do that. They said the measure would forbid companies from discriminating against employees who seek abortion, contraceptives or make other reproductive health decisions.
“How can any American defend an employer who imposes his religion or personal philosophical beliefs on an employee’s private reproductive matters,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the district’s non-voting representative in Congress.
Democrats also argued that the GOP’s effort to annul the city’s law contradicted the usual Republican argument that Congress should not impose its will on local governments.
By law, Congress can block measures approved by the District of Columbia government, but it hasn’t done that since 1992.