Legislators Need to Strip Taxpayer-Funded Discrimination from Defense Bill

Image by  uschools /Getty Images

Image by uschools/Getty Images

A few months ago, some members of the U.S. House snuck a provision, commonly referred to as the Russell Amendment, into their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination in every single federal contract and grant issued by the federal government, whether defense related or not. The people most likely to face discrimination under this provision are workers who are of minority faiths, of no faith, women, and LGBT individuals.

Now, a group of bipartisan Representatives and Senators are meeting to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of this defense bill, which is annual must-pass legislation setting national defense policy.  According to a report in CQ Roll Call just this week, the Russell Amendment “is one of the two major sticking points holding up” the bill.

To be honest, I’m surprised this provision didn’t find itself on the cutting room floor long ago because it is so sweeping and radical: it demands that every federal agency allow the religiously affiliated organizations it funds through contracts or grants to discriminate in hiring with these taxpayer funds. That is why AU, along with 90 national civil rights, faith, LGBT, and reproductive rights groups, sent a letter urging that the provision be scrapped.

What will this provision mean in the real world? You could be denied a government-funded job because you are of the “wrong” religion. You could be disqualified not just because of the religion you identify with— or don’t— but also because of other personal aspects of your life, like whether you use birth control, are a single mother, or are in a same-sex relationship. That is outrageous.

The Russell Amendment would also jeopardize the protections provided for in President Obama’s 2014 Executive Order, which currently prohibits all federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees.

If you have been following these issues for a long time, you will know that this is exactly what the George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative tried to do, which Congress has repeatedly refused to adopt. But you don’t have to be well versed in that history to know that sanctioning discrimination is a loser. Look at the backlash against states like North Carolina for its anti-LGBT law and Indiana and Mississippi for their so-called religious freedom laws. Why would members of Congress invite similar controversy?

You’d never guess how radical this amendment is from the reckless way it was adopted. Congress never seriously examined this provision. There was no hearing or any real debate over this issue— instead, one committee voted to add the Russell Amendment in the middle of the night. And House leadership thwarted even considering a bipartisan amendment to remove the provision during the House’s debate of the defense bill. Bear in mind, this provision would amend the law that applies contracts and grants on issues that extend way beyond national defense, even though the NDAA should be limited to defense issues. Why would members of Congress jeopardize passage of the defense bill with something wholly unrelated and wholly indefensible?

Even though Congress is in recess until after the election, those responsible for hashing out a compromise on this bill will continue negotiations. There’s still time for them to come to their senses and remove this controversial provision. After all, religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees everyone the right to believe as they see fit— but not to use their religion as an excuse to discriminate against others, especially when using taxpayer dollars. This provision is just as radical as it is wrong.

Follow Maggie Garrett online at @maggiefgarrett