Sen. McCain Opposed Arizona “Religious Freedom” Bill In 2014 And Now Should Reject A Similar Provision In Defense Bill

Photo by  CSIS /Flickr

Photo by CSIS/Flickr

Over the last several years, state legislatures across the country have considered legislation that purports to protect “religious freedom,” but was aimed at sanctioning discrimination. You would think that after the widespread backlash to these bills from religious leaders, businesses, and the public Congress would avoid such legislation. Yet, it is on the verge of passing a defense bill containing a provision called the Russell Amendment that would allow all faith-based federal contractors and grantees to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

Senator McCain— one of the four members of Congress who decides what stays in the defense bill— should know this even better than others.

In 2014, the legislature in McCain’s home state of Arizona passed a “religious freedom” bill aimed at allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people under the guise of religion. It generated immense controversy and opposition both in the state and nationwide. The business community and the sports world immediately recognized the threat posed by this bill and weighed in with serious concerns. Leaders within the state, including U.S. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, were key voices in opposition to the harmful bill. Sen. McCain said the measure was unnecessary, that it would “hurt the image of our state.” Both urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the bill, which she did. 

Since then, similar bills have become even more controversial. The most infamous, of course, is the Indiana “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA). After signing this controversial law, Governor (and current GOP vice presidential candidate) Mike Pence saw his approval rating drop almost 20 points. The backlash was widespread: the NCAACEOsNASCAR, healthcare providers, and conventions expressed their disappointment and concern. 

Indiana was followed by Mississippi, where the governor signed the discriminatory bill into law despite protests and a federal court has already ruled it was unconstitutional. And followed by Georgia, where major corporations, CEOs, entertainment industry titans, the NFL, professional sports teams, athletes, and actors announced their opposition to the bill and the governor vetoed it.

In fact, in Indiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, leaders of a wide variety of faith communities denounced the measures, dispelling the notion that these bills were about “religious freedom.”  Rather, these bills undermined religious freedom, which guarantees us a right to act on whatever religious beliefs we may (or may not) hold unless doing so harms others. 

Now Sen. McCain is in a position to once again stand against discrimination masked as religious freedom. He must decide whether he will keep the Russell Amendment, a dangerous provision that sanctions taxpayer-funded discrimination, in the defense bill. 

The Russell Amendment is an extreme and sweeping provision that would jeopardize critical workplace protections for anyone who works for a religiously affiliated contractor or grantee. Indeed, no one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job because they are the “wrong” religion or they don’t follow the same religious tenets as their employer. It’s probably no surprise that the people most likely to face discrimination are workers who are of minority faiths, of no faith, women, and LGBTQ individuals. 

Sen. McCain has seen the disastrous effects the Russell Amendment and other so-called religious freedom laws can have. The Russell Amendment is antithetical to his previous message and position on the Arizona bill. Now’s the time for him to act. We urge Sen. McCain to reject discrimination and reject Russell. 

You can also do your part to #RejectRussell: sign our petition.