The House of Representatives voted late Thursday evening to strike down a D.C. law banning businesses from discriminating against workers based on their opinions or use of birth control or abortion.
The vote fell largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting the repeal vote and calling the D.C. law an attack on religious freedom. The “disapproval resolution” passed 228 to 192, with 13 Republicans voting against it and three Democrats voting in favor.
Thursday’s vote, though largely symbolic, is the first time in 24 years that members of Congress have used the measure to attempt to block a D.C. law from taking effect.
D.C. lawmakers enacted the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act in December to extend protections to workers by banning employers from discriminating against employees based on their personal decisions or opinions regarding reproductive healthcare. Without the law in place, officials cited the possibility of employers being able to fire or demote employees for using birth control or having a child out of wedlock.
Though Congress has the authority to review and block local D.C. legislation, successfully doing so would also require passage of a similar measure in the Senate and approval by the president. Senate leaders have signaled they do not intend to take up the matter before the D.C. law takes effect on Saturday.
On Wednesday, the White House threatened a veto should the disapproval resolution be passed in both houses.
“This legislation would give employers cover to fire employees for the personal decisions they make about birth control and their reproductive health,” read a statement of administrative policy released by the White House. “These personal decisions should not jeopardize anyone’s job or terms of employment.”
Federal lawmakers typically curtail D.C. laws by adding language into federal budgets that prevents the city from spending its local tax dollars on certain initiatives.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting representative to Congress, said “resentment does not begin to relate our response” to the Republican-backed measure.
“This resolution is wildly undemocratic, is in violation of the nation’s founding principle of local control of local affairs, and is profoundly offensive to D.C. residents,” she said.
Critics, including conservative activist groups, argued that the law would illegally require organizations to provide insurance coverage for abortions and other reproductive health care procedures regardless of whether they violate the organizations’ religious beliefs.
“While this particular law only applies to the District of Columbia, it sets a dangerous precedent for future legislation that could further weaken our long-held tradition of respecting Americans’ conscience rights,” said the sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican.
Before leaving office, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray raised concern about the implications of the bill, calling it “legally problematic,” and recommending changes in the wording to ensure it did not run afoul of constitutional protections.
His successor, Muriel Bowser, has sought to assuage fears about the legislation by introducing emergency legislation that clarifies that the original act “shall not be construed to require an employer to provide insurance coverage related to a reproductive health decision.”
Federal lawmakers have been critical that D.C. lawmakers only passed an emergency version of the amendment, which by nature can be effective for no longer than 90 days, and have not taken steps to permanently amend the legislation.