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DC City Council Picking Fight Against Supreme Court Over Hobby Lobby Decision

John A. Wilson Building
The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, DC. It houses the offices and chambers of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. It was constructed in 1908 and originally known as the District Building. |

Washington, D.C., passed a bill that attempts to counter a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing for closely-held businesses to be exempted from the federal birth control mandate.

In a unanimous vote taken Wednesday, the Council of the District of Columbia passed a bill that apparently conflicts with the Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby.

B20-0790, or the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014, was introduced in May by Councilmember David Grosso a few months after the Court heard oral arguments in the case.

"An employer should not be able to tell their employee whether or not they can access certain kinds of health care," stated Grosso in May.

"While the District enjoys some of the strongest non-discrimination laws in the country, this specific legislation signals that we stand by the rights of women and families to make their own reproductive health decisions without involvement from their employer."

B20-0790 amends the Human Rights Act of 1977 to include a measure preventing an employer from determining the extent of reproductive health coverage for their employees.

"An employer or employment agency shall not discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of or on the basis of the individual's or a dependent's reproductive health decision making, including a decision to use or access a particular drug, device or medical service, because of or on the basis of an employer's personal beliefs about such services," read B20-0790.

Sent to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in May, the bill was given first reading in October and expected to pass given its strong support among the councilmembers.

B20-0790 was placed on the agenda of the Council's Dec. 2 meeting, but a vote on the proposed legislation was delayed due to various concerns.

During the discussion over B20-0790 on Wednesday, Councilmember Tommy Wells offered an amendment, which was added, to clarify that both men and women will receive coverage.

It was also noted by the Council that the District's Office of the Attorney General expressed concerns over the bill, including the need for a "ministerial exemption" to the coverage mandate. The Council concluded that such an exemption will likely be "read into" the bill once it has been enacted and thus there should be no First Amendment concerns.

This comes months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby that closely-held businesses were exempted from the federal government's birth control mandate.

In a five to four decision in June, the Supreme Court ruled that businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods Specialties can be exempted from the Health and Human Services' birth control mandate on the basis of religious objection. The federal government's Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to closely held businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, the Surpreme Court decided. The decision was explicitly narrowed to only the contraceptive mandate and not applicable to other potential insurance issues, like blood transfusions or vaccinations.

The mayor is expected to sign B20-0790 into law.

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