Going on the Offense over Defense: Americans United and Allies Work to Remove Religious Discrimination from Military Spending Bill

By Hassanein, Rokia | Church & State, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Going on the Offense over Defense: Americans United and Allies Work to Remove Religious Discrimination from Military Spending Bill


Hassanein, Rokia, Church & State


The 2016 presidential election dominated the head JPI lines for months. But even as that struggle played out, a political showdown was taking place in the U.S. Congress that could end with religious discrimination being enshrined in our nation's laws.

The drama centered on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill, which funds the Department of Defense and its military operations, is considered must-pass legislation. Thus, it often attracts amendments that promote socially conservative views on military issues.

This year, it drew a much broader amendment. U.S. Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) tacked on a particularly audacious provision to the House version of the bill (H.R. 4909). What has become known as the "Russell Amendment" would require that all federal agencies allow religiously affiliated contractors and grantees to discriminate in employment on the basis of religion even when using taxpayer money.

This sweeping amendment isn't limited to Defense Department programs, contracts, and grants; it would affect every federal government agency and every one of their contracts and grants.

The amendment would have the biggest impact on members of religious minority groups and the non-religious, as well as women and LGBTQ Americans whose views don't align with the religious beliefs of their religiously affiliated employers.

"[Under the amendment], a person could be denied a government-funded job based upon their religious beliefs and practices," AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett said during a press call Oct. 25. "It would effectively codify, and even go beyond, the most troubling aspects of the George W. Bush Faith-Based Initiative, which Congress rightly refused to enact, and that have been controversial for decades."

The fight over the amendment has been going on for months and is still not resolved. Earlier this year, the House Armed Services Committee approved the provision, which became Section 1094 of the House version of the NDAA, by a 33-29 vote.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) led an effort to remove the provision in the House. On Sept. 14, Scott and nearly 90 House colleagues sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member, urging them to remove the language.

"The scope of Section 1094 is far reaching as it would authorize taxpayer-funded employment discrimination in every grant, cooperative agreement, contract, subcontract, and purchase order awarded by every Federal agency doing business with a religiously affiliated organization," observed the letter.

Unfortunately, the bill went to the U.S. Senate with the Russell language intact.

The Senate-passed version of the NDAA (S. 2943) does not include the provision. Now, members of the House and Senate are working to reconcile the two versions of the bill.

Thanks to the advocacy work of AU and its allies, senators are paying attention. In October, 42 senators, led U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), signed a letter condemning the Russell Amendment and emphasizing its dangers.

"This provision would be an affront to religious freedom for all Americans," the letter stated. "Allowing Section 1094 to be included in the NDAA would essentially sanction federally funded religious discrimination, contradicting the First Amendment which prohibits religious exemptions like this that result in harm to others."

The fact that 42 senators are now on record as opposing the Russell Amendment is significant because it shows the NDAA would lack the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster.

Speaking to reporters during the Oct. 25 call, Blumenthal noted that he has never voted against the NDAA given its importance, and added that he hopes he won't ever have to.

"Clearly, it's an issue that has reached [negotiators], and what we're doing here is sounding an alarm about how strongly and widely held the belief is that this measure should be removed," Blumenthal said. …

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