Discriminatory Provision Removed From Defense Department Bill

A controversial provision that would have required that all federal agencies allow religiously affiliated contractors and grantees to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer funds has been removed from the national defense bill.

Americans United was among dozens of organizations that opposed what became known as the Russell Amendment for its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.).

Russell was able to attach the language to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is considered must-pass legislation. His amendment would have affected all federal agencies, not just the Department of Defense. (See “On The Offense Over Defense,” December 2016 Church & State.)

The Senate version of the bill didn’t include the language. When lawmakers from the House and Senate met to reconcile the two versions of the bill, they decided to leave the Russell Amendment out.

In mid-November, Americans Uni­ted joined a dozen national organizations to deliver more than 340,000 petition signatures to Con­gress in opposition to the Russell Amendment. The petition urged U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and U.S. Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) – the four lawmakers who worked to hash out a final version of the defense bill – to strip out the language.

On Dec. 2, the House voted to adopt a final version of the NDAA that doesn’t include the Russell Amendment. The Senate voted to adopt it on Dec. 8.

In a post on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett explained why the amendment is bad public policy.

“The Russell Amendment violates the longstanding principle that the government should not fund discrimination,” Garrett wrote. “It would allow taxpayer-funded discrimination towards women, LGBT people, and religious minorities in religious­ly affiliated organizations including hospitals and universities. But, no one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job because he or she is the ‘wrong’ religion or because he or she does not follow the same religious tenets as the employer.”

She added, “The provision is also sweeping. It doesn’t just apply to defense programs, but to every federal contract and grant, across all federal agencies. And, it would jeopardize vital, existing workplace nondiscrimination protections, including those that cover 28 million people – a fifth of the country’s workforce.

“The Russell Amendment,” Garrett concluded, “is one of the most significant threats to the LGBT community, women, and religious liberty that we have seen in Congress in years.”

Other groups that opposed the amendment and helped deliver the petition included CREDO Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, Am­erican Military Partners Association, the Center for American Pro­gress Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, In Our Own Voice, Lamb­da Legal, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Center for Les­bian Rights, the National Women’s Law Center, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and URGE.