D.C. presses religious schools to recognize gay groups on campus

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WASHINGTON, D.C. ??? Religious schools and universities in Washington, D.C., may have to change their school policies to recognize gay and lesbian groups on campus.

Before the end of the past legislative session, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to repeal a religious exception to the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977. The amendment allowed religious schools in the district to deny recognition and funding to gay rights groups on campus.

The Armstrong Amendment was added to a congressional appropriations bill in 1989 by Sen. Neil Armstrong after a court ruled against Georgetown University for refusing to recognize a student homosexual-advocacy group on campus.

Former Councilmember Tommy Wells, who introduced the bill, told the National Catholic Register that ???religious educational institutions owe the same tolerance and acceptance to their students that they enjoy themselves.???

???Repealing the Armstrong Amendment is important to everyone in the District of Columbia because we decided long ago that, in our community, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unacceptable,??? he told the Register.

Some are concerned the bill would prevent schools from upholding their religious beliefs.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit that promotes Catholic education, said repealing the amendment is a violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

???Essentially what you???re doing is outlawing Catholic education,??? he said.

He said the Armstrong Amendment was a compromise between religious liberty and equality that worked for over 20 years.

???The D.C. law has protected the rights of lesbians and gays while recognizing that religious institutions have to uphold their religious beliefs,??? he said.

Richard Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., said the issue isn???t about religious schools endorsing gay groups, but about equality.

???It is about requiring provision of the same benefits as other student groups, not requiring approval,??? he said.

The bill is currently waiting to be delivered to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Once delivered, she has 10 days to sign it into law or veto it. If approved, the bill will have a 30-day congressional review before becoming law, unless Congress votes to veto it.

Lawrence Morris, general counsel to the Catholic University of America, said the college does not plan to change its policy, and will defend its First Amendment rights if challenged.

???By voting to remove the religious protection that we had previously enjoyed the council is asserting that there is a role for government in determining how a private, religious, educational institution carries out its mission,??? he said. ???This is an intrusion that imperils our ability to operate in accord with our deeply held religious beliefs and flouts the Constitution.???