A massive defense policy bill is headed for a vote in Congress minus a controversial amendment opposed by religious and civil-liberties groups who claimed it would authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination in federal contracts.
Lawmakers from the House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to remove a provision known as the Russell Amendment from the $618.7 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, after enough Senate Democrats to filibuster the bill demanded it be taken out.
The amendment, introduced by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), would have overridden President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.
Russell — a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and member of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla. — introduced the measure during a late-night markup in April. It would have entitled “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society” seeking federal contracts to the same exemptions allowed by federal civil rights law and the Americans Disabilities Act.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and 41 other religious, education, civil rights, labor and women’s organizations responded with an open letter April 27 urging lawmakers to reject the Russell Amendment because it would authorize the use of government funds to discriminate on the basis of religion.
“The government should never fund discrimination and no taxpayer should be disqualified from a job under a federal contract or grant because he or she is the ‘wrong’ religion,” said the group identified as The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination.
“We appreciate the important role religiously affiliated institutions historically have played in addressing many of our nation’s most pressing social needs, as a complement to government-funded programs,” the group said. “We also recognize that the separation of church and state is the linchpin of religious freedom. In our view, effective government collaboration with faith-based groups does not require the sanctioning of federally funded religious discrimination.”
On Nov. 15 several organizations including Americans United for Separation of Church and State delivered more than 340,000 petitions to Capitol Hill urging committee members to reject the Russell Amendment.
The compromise defense bill omits other controversial provisions including a requirement that women register for the draft, opposed by Republicans wary of allowing women in combat. It provides a 2.1 percent increase in military pay, more than the president’s request for 1.6 percent and the largest raise in five years.