The NDAA’s Russell Amendment Goes Much Broader Than Just Defense Policy

Photo by BKFoto/Getty Images

Photo by BKFoto/Getty Images

By now you’ve heard a lot from us about the Russell Amendment and our efforts to urge members of Congress to strip it out before the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) becomes law. So you probably already know this dangerous provision would require that all federal agencies allow religiously affiliated contractors and grantees to discriminate in employment on the basis of religion when using taxpayer money.

What you might not realize is just how sweeping and radical this measure is— even more extreme than the typical religious freedom issues we (unfortunately often) battle in the NDAA.

The annual NDAA is must-pass legislation that governs federal defense projects and programs. It is often the most likely of unlikely places that some try to push their so-called religious liberty policies.

For example, after Congress repealed the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and marriage equality took hold in states across the country, we saw repeated attempts to undermine these advances. Some members of Congress tried to add provisions to the NDAA to prohibit marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in houses of worship on military bases. They also proposed banning all military chaplains from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex partners— even those whose denominations and faiths permit such marriages— which, ironically, would have interfered with those chaplains’ ability to abide by the dictates of their faith.

And year after year, the issue of government-endorsed sectarian prayers plays out in the NDAA. For instance, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) continues to try to add a provision to the bill that would allow military chaplains to give sectarian prayers at large, mandatory gatherings, which would unconstitutionally coerce service members into participating in prayer.

These provisions, though deeply troubling, are at least limited in scope— meddling only with military policy, which the NDAA governs. The Russell Amendment is such a big deal, in part, because it goes much further. It applies to not just the Department of Defense, but also every single other federal agency. It simply makes no sense to tack on an exemption that would apply to Department of Health and Human Services’ contracts with social service providers— or to any other federal agency— as part of our national defense policy.

Supporters have tried to tie the Russell Amendment to familiar NDAA territory by hiding behind rhetoric that the amendment is somehow necessary to protect the religious freedom of military chaplains. To state the obvious, chaplains have always been able to successfully serve without such a provision. Plus, even if their rhetoric were true, why would such a sweeping provision— one that jeopardizes critical workplace protections for anyone who works for a religiously affiliated contractor or grantee— be necessary? Instead, these repeated assertions that chaplains’ religious liberty must be protected have come to serve as a proxy, and a convenient way to try to insert dangerous provisions into the must-pass NDAA.

But, the Russell Amendment is the most extreme attempt yet. The widespread, bipartisan pushback from members of Congress, and the President’s threat to veto the bill, prove that. Inclusion of the Russell Amendment in the final version of this year’s NDAA could well sink the bill.

The strong opposition to the Russell Amendment is encouraging. But our work is not done. We need you to take action to urge your Senator to oppose the Russell Amendment. Let them know that they should oppose the inclusion of taxpayer-funded discrimination in this year’s NDAA.

Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Elise Helgesen Aguilar is the Federal Legislative Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Elise graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Law School in 2011. There, she was Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy as well as the founder and president of the University of Florida ACLU. After law school, Elise worked on voting rights and electoral reform as a Legal Fellow with FairVote. She also worked on successful Congressional campaigns in both Florida and Virginia. Elise graduated cum laude from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a B.A. in Government. She is originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.