Metro Weekly

Anti-LGBT provision gets added to annual defense bill

Republican-controlled House Rules Committee blocks bipartisan amendment to remove discriminatory provision

U.S. Capitol Building (Photo: Raul654, via Wikimedia Commons).
U.S. Capitol Building (Photo: Raul654, via Wikimedia Commons).

It looks like Capitol Hill Republican leadership is up to their old tricks again. Amid markup of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill to fund Defense Department operations, lawmakers inserted a provision that would undermine the Obama administration’s executive order prohibiting employment discrimination by federal contractors.

The provision, known as the Russell Amendment, which was proposed by U.S. Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), allows any “religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society” to discriminate against LGBT employees under the guise of religious freedom. It was added to the defense bill by the House Committee on Armed Services on a largely party-line vote, 33-29. All of the committee’s Democrats and two Republicans voted against the amendment.

In response to the introduction of the Russell Amendment, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by U.S. Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.), attempted to remove the provision from the defense bill. The Dent-Smith Amendment was cosponsored by several other members of Congress from both parties, including Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Richard Hanna (D-N.Y.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). But the House Rules Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), refused to allow a floor debate or vote on removing the Russell Amendment from the defense bill. The full bill is expected to be voted on in the House this week.

In co-introducing the amendment to remove the provision, Smith noted that the bill lacks specific language that would clearly define what constitutes a “religious corporation,” reports The Hill.

“The exemption is meant for religious organizations,” Smith said. “They way this amendment is written, it doesn’t matter if you are a religious organization. You could be a private contractor and this basically gives you the right to discriminate if you decide that you just don’t want to do business with gay people.”

In the past, similar amendments with an anti-LGBT thrust were introduced as part of the defense bill, a common tactic used to try and force a president to sign unpopular provisions into law for fear of being branded “unsupportive” of the military or “weak” on national security if he were to veto a defense bill. But in past congressional sessions, such provisions were defeated in the Democratic-controlled Senate. That calculus changes with the upper chamber now in Republican hands. Nonetheless, President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, not over the Russell Amendment, but rather over other provisions related to Defense Department spending, where he has clashed with congressional Republicans.

Mark Takano, one of the co-chairs of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, lamented the Rules Committee’s decision to not allow a vote on the Dent-Smith Amendment, noting that the Russell Amendment would undo a signature achievement of the Obama administration in combating LGBT employment discrimination.

“The anti-LGBT Russell Provision will effectively overrule the President’s landmark Executive Order prohibiting LGBT discrimination in federal contracting, which provided workplace protections for 28 million people,” he said. “It was passed in the middle of the night with no chance for informed discussion or debate. An amendment to remove this harmful language was blocked by opponents of equality who are choosing to subsidize discrimination with taxpayer funds.

“NDAA is about keeping our country safe and strong. What these lawmakers fail to understand is that the source of America’s strength is both our military power and the respect we offer to every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation,” Takano added. “It is ironic and sad that a defense bill would be used to undermine the principles we are fighting to protect.  The fact that this comes a day after the confirmation of Eric Fanning to Secretary of the Army, the first openly gay leader of a branch of our military, is a reminder that hate and bigotry towards the LGBT community are not easily defeated.”

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