How the Energy and Water Funding Bill Turned into a Fight Over Religious Discrimination

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the House took up the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which is just one of the dozen of bills Congress passes each year to fund the federal government. The bill, not normally thought to evoke debates over discrimination or religion, became a lightning rod for those issues by the end of the day. And the bill ultimately failed, in part, due to a troubling amendment that would have allowed taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.  

Debate on the bill had already extended into the evening on Wednesday when Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) offered an amendment that would reaffirm existing non-discrimination protections that prevent federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. (These non-discrimination protections were established in an Executive Order signed by President Obama in July 2014.)  

This was not the first time Rep. Maloney offered his amendment. Just last week, he offered this same amendment to the spending bill on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. Initially it looked like the amendment would pass, but it ultimately lost by one vote after House leadership did some arm-twisting to encourage their Republican colleagues to switch their votes. Afterwards, Maloney suggested that he would be offering this amendment to every appropriations bill that hits the House floor.

But right after Rep. Maloney offered his amendment to the water and energy funding bill, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) countered with an extreme amendment that would undermine the very protections Rep. Maloney’s amendment affirmed. The Byrne amendment would permit federal contractors and grantees to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion with federal dollars. (The Byrne amendment is akin to the Russell Amendment, which was inserted into the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and that Democrats tried, but lost on a party-line vote, to remove last week on the House floor. You can read the letter AU joined to oppose the bill here.)  

Under the Byrne amendment, faith-based organizations could take taxpayer money to perform a social service for the public—like running the local homeless shelter or working with at-risk youth—and then only hire people who belong to the organization’s denomination or profess the same beliefs. Religious hospitals and schools that get government grants or contracts could do the same. The result: government-funded jobs would be denied to qualified candidates because they belong to the “wrong religion” or don’t live according to an organization’s religious tenets. This amendment isn’t just about whether you belong to the right church or temple (which is also clearly wrong), but it also means taxpayer-funded organizations could discriminate against a woman who is pregnant and unmarried or a man who marries his same-sex partner.

The floor action and debate Wednesday night was much less dramatic than when Maloney offered his amendment to the military construction bill last week. This time the Maloney amendment passed by a vote of 223-195 (with the help of 43 Republicans). And unfortunately the Byrne amendment passed immediately after with a vote of 233-186.  

But the story didn’t end there.  

On Thursday morning, before the final vote on the energy and water funding bill, the Republicans held their regular policy meeting. According to The Hill, Representative Rick Allen (R-GA) opened the meeting “by reading a Bible passage condemning homosexuality and suggesting that supporters of the LGBT provision, which passed the House the night before, were defying Christian tenets.” Some walked out. Still others were upset.  

And when members went to the floor later in the day, they voted down the entire water and energy funding bill 112-305.  

Some Republicans voted against the bill because it contained the Maloney amendment. Some Democrats voted against it because it contained the Byrne amendment.

In the end, religious liberty won out. When the bill died, the provision that would undermine religious freedom and protections for workers who are LGBT, women, and adherents to minority faiths died along with it. And that is good news.  

Here’s hoping that we don’t see the Byrne amendment in future appropriations bills. But if we do, you can be sure AU will continue to fight back against it. 

Follow Maggie Garrett online at @maggiefgarrett