In the 1950s and 60s, when southern states enacted laws denying fundamental rights to African-Americans, including nullification of federal law, Congress did not hesitate to act and pass the civil rights acts. The cries to shield the deprivation of essential liberties were rightly dismissed in favor of equal justice for all Americans.          

This history comes to mind as Congress considers how to respond to the D.C. Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA) and the D.C. Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAA), both of which trample on fundamental rights and freedoms of association, speech and religion. As Congress reviews these unjust measures passed by the D.C. Council, will they fulfill their historical role and act to protect fundamental liberties and rights of conscience in the nation’s capital? Or will injustice prevail by allowing them to go into effect?


As one who oversees the largest non-public school system in the District of Columbia – as part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which is also the largest non-government provider of social services in our community – these questions are of more than idle interest to me. By empowering certain favored groups, the D.C. government here would deny disfavored groups the same right that every other person and organization has – the fundamental right to control one’s own message, mission, public image and identity. More to the point, these discriminatory measures would give others a right to co-opt the Catholic schools under my administration, other religious schools and institutions, and many secular advocacy groups in what they stand for, what they do and what they are. Failure to comply could subject the organizations to a lawsuit or administrative sanctions.

Specifically, among other things, RHNDA would require organizations that are faith-based, pro-life and/or pro-family to hire and retain workers who by their conduct undermine these groups in their purpose and identity, including the ability to express messages that are affirming of life and fundamental human dignity. For example, Catholic schools would be obliged to keep teachers that sow confusion among schoolchildren by engaging in conduct that is contrary to Catholic teaching on the fundamental dignity of human life from the moment of conception. Meanwhile, by seeking to nullify religious liberty protections enacted by Congress, HRAA would have the effect of compelling educational institutions, including those that are religiously-affiliated, to facilitate, grant benefits to, or otherwise be associated with student groups that promote views contrary to the schools’ mission and teachings, specifically those dealing with human sexuality.

No person or institution should be required to diminish their identity so that the government’s ideologically-favored views may be advanced instead. Not one member of Congress would ever consider hiring or continuing to employ someone who worked in his “private life” for the opposing party. Each and every member would loudly object if his or her office were required to recognize and fund a group within the office that was publicly against what the member stands for. Neither should those targeted by RHNDA and HRAA be denied their freedom simply because they wish to follow their beliefs – particularly when those beliefs are grounded in fundamental truths that have been recognized throughout history – rather than the new order decreed by the D.C. government.

In addition to freedom of association and expression generally, when we come specifically to faith-based institutions, there is also the fundamental freedom of religion. In asserting religious freedom against the oppressive RHNDA and HRAA, we do not ask for any special privilege, only that the government respect the historic and constitutional principle of separation of church and state and, thus, not interfere with the governance of religious entities. Moreover, contrary to the insidious lie pushed by some that we claim a “freedom to discriminate,” we do not and would never discriminate against a person based on personal characteristics or membership in a protected class. Everyone is treated the same; everyone is held to the same standard.

No one is compelled to accept our services or work for our religious institutions. At the same time, we should not be compelled to suffer the undermining of our mission and identity no matter the sex or sexuality of the person seeking to do so.

In his remarks at the recent Easter prayer breakfast, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles If Republicans rebuked Steve King, they must challenge Donald Trump ‘Family Guy’ says it will stop making jokes about gay people MORE said, “Where there is injustice we defend the oppressed. Where there is disagreement, we treat each other with compassion and respect.” That is all that we are asking – that the D.C. government treat with respect those who have beliefs that are different from the government-approved view, that Congress and President Obama act now to defend the oppressed people and institutions in the District against the blatant injustice of RHNDA and HRAA.

Burnford is secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Washington.