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One might think that the District of Columbia, our nation’s capital, would be particularly vigilant in defending the freedoms fundamental to American life. Unfortunately, the District’s City Council has now seen fit to intervene into the life of religious institutions and insist that such institutions handle some topics in ways amenable to the Council’s opinions.

In December 2014, the District Council unanimously adopted the “Human Rights Amendment of 2014.” Among other things, the act states that while a religiously-affiliated school can deny funding and recognition to gay and lesbian student groups, it cannot deny access to its “resources and facilities” to such groups on the same basis as to groups officially funded and recognized. The act tries to walk a narrow path. Courts have said that religious schools cannot be forced to recognize or fund groups that oppose their teachings, but the District insists that such religious freedom does not extend to the use of the school’s facilities, for example, rooms to hold meetings or permits for rallies.

Think a second about what the actual effect of this act would be. Let’s say a Catholic school or college had a policy that denied access to school facilities for groups advocating teachings or practices opposed to Catholic doctrine (as at least some such schools do). The school then gets applications for on-campus rallies from three student groups, none of them officially recognized, but nonetheless in existence on campus:

  • A rally denying the bodily assumption of Mary by the Anti-Marian Student League
  • A rally against church teaching on the divinity of Jesus by the Student Unitarian Action Coalition
  • A rally in favor of same-sex unions by the LGBT Student Alliance.

The school could deny the first two applications because they are opposed to Catholic teaching and that presumably would be alright with the District of Columbia. But the last application, for a rally in favor of same-sex unions, must be accepted or the District of Columbia would accuse the school of a human rights violation. In other words, the school can regulate its own life in accord with its beliefs in all areas but one. A special state-enforced privilege is carved out for advocacy on questions of sexuality.

Perhaps the school could defend itself. It could say that it is not discriminating against the LGBT Student Alliance; it is only following a consistent policy on advocacy against church teaching. Even if such a defense would be successful, the litigation would occur; the school would incur the expense of defending itself. The act is a constant threat of a prosecution waiting to happen, an invitation to harassment.

Debate over this action has become entangled with the perennial argument over the power of the District to govern itself without Congressional supervision. Whatever views one might hold on that distinct question, in this case the Council has engaged in an obvious violation of the right to the free exercise of religion.    

Michael Root is Ordinary Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.

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