Metro Weekly

Senators call for anti-gay amendment to be stripped from defense bill

Russell Amendment could allow anti-LGBT and anti-woman discrimination under guise of "religious freedom"

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

Forty-two U.S. senators are calling on the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services to strip an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” amendment from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the senators claim that the Russell Amendment would roll back workplace protections and condone taxpayer-funded discrimination if it remains intact.

Currently, the NDAA is in conference committee, where members of the House and Senate will try to sort the differences between their versions of the bills in order to send the legislation to President Obama’s desk.

As such, the senators are calling on Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Ranking Members Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) to remove the provision before the bill receives a final vote.

The Russell Amendment would allow any “religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society” to discriminate against people who engage in behavior that violates that religious entity’s beliefs, including LGBT people, women who use birth control, those who engage in extramarital sex, or even people of other religious faiths.

The amendment’s broadened religious exemptions would be extended to all federal agencies, effectively undercutting an Obama executive order prohibiting discrimination by contractors and subcontractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

After the House committee initially approved the NDAA with the amendment intact, pro-LGBT House Republicans sided with Democrats to try to remove the provision from the bill.

But Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), head of the Rules Committee, refused to allow a floor debate on it. The Senate has no such amendment in its version of the NDAA.

In a conference call on Tuesday afternoon, Blumenthal, flanked by representatives from LGBT and women’s rights groups, called on the chairmen and ranking members to allow a vote to strip the Russell Amendment from the bill.

The senator called the amendment both “anathema and antithetical to the American values that our military defends and is designed to protect.”

“The Russell Amendment is going to allow for taxpayer-funded discrimination against women, against religious minorities, and against LGBT people as well,” Laura Durso, senior director of the LGBT communications project at the Center for American Progress, said in the conference call.

“We see this [amendment] as one of the most significant threats to LGBT people and to women that Congress has put forward in years,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s true because of the sweep of the amendment, and it’s true because this proposal could, in fact, become law…. This amendment could authorize discrimination, with your taxpayer dollars, by every agency, against individuals in the context of employment because they’re in a same-sex marriage, because someone’s undergoing a gender transition, against a woman because she’s using birth control, against a woman because she’s pregnant and not married, and against employees who use assisted reproductive technology.”

Melling said that if the Russell Amendment remains intact, the ACLU is calling upon members of Congress to vote against the bill, and if it manages to reach Obama’s desk, will call on the president to veto it.

When asked by reporters whether he would vote against or filibuster the bill if the Russell Amendment was not stripped out, Blumenthal hedged, saying he and the other signatories of the letter were focused on removing the amendment from the final conference report.

He said that the group had not decided on a course of action should the provision emerge unscathed from the conference committee.

As it stands, there is a narrow chance that the Russell Amendment could be defeated. There are 13 House Democrats and 18 House Republicans on the committee, including two Republicans — Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) — who voted against the Russell Amendment.

Keeping those Republicans and all House Democrats in line would result in a 16-15 split in favor of the amendment.

There are nine Senate Republicans and seven Senate Democrats on the conference committee, meaning that, if all Senate Democrats voted against the Russell Amendment, LGBT and women’s rights groups would have to depend on McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to provide the missing votes to ensure its defeat.

David Stacy, the government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization was hopeful that McCain might oppose the Russell Amendment.

He cited the senator’s past opposition to a similarly crafted “religious freedom” bill that was vetoed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) over concerns that it would have permitted discrimination against LGBT people.

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