Key Religious Freedom Protection Stripped From Defense Spending Bill After Pro-LGBT Groups Complain

(Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg)The U.S. Capitol building is seen before President Barack Obama arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015.

Congressional lawmakers have removed a proposed religious freedom protection from the annual defense spending bill that would have protected religious charities and other federal contractors from losing federal grants because of their views on marriage and sexuality.

In May, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act — annual legislation that lays out the budget and expenditures for the Department of Defense — that included a measure known as the Russell Amendment.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., would have made it so that faith-based federal government contractors — like aid groups who serve the vulnerable refugees, soldiers in war zones and victims of human trafficking — could not be denied federal contracts or grants for having employment policies that align with biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality.

The amendment was seen as a response to an executive order issued by President Barack Obama that prohibits federal contractors from making employment decisions on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

While the amendment was backed by religious freedom advocacy groups, pro-LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union strongly advocated against the amendment, arguing that it would allow contractors to "discriminate against a broad swath of our society."

Although the House version of the NDAA included the Russell Amendment, the Senate version of the bill did not.

As the NDAA is expected to be finalized later this week, Senate and House conferees agreed to strip the Russell Amendment from the final version of the bill, congressional aides told reporters this week.

"We believe that this should have been an entirely uncontroversial provision and some in the Senate caved to intense pressure from outside groups to strip this language," Kristina Arriaga, the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told The Christian Post.

"This may have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable of populations — women who have been trafficked, children who are in refugee camps, veterans, people in the military," she added. "It's really a shame that political expediency became a priority rather than the service of the vulnerable around the world, which the faith-based groups do so well."

Arriaga added that the a number of federal contractors, charities and organizations have no funding but the federal funding they receive. So, stripping those organizations of their federal contracts because their hiring policies align with biblical teachings could cause some of them to "disappear altogether from existence."

"The bottom line is that there are faith-based charities that are willing to go where no one else is willing to go and the people that they are helping are vulnerable people and that should not be a political football," Amy Vitale, a Becket Fund fellow and lawyer, told CP. "That should be something that we should all support, especially when the provisions in question here are time-tested provisions and existing federal civil rights laws."

Mike Berry, senior counsel with the First Liberty Institute, told CP that the stripping of the amendment shows that there are still outside lobbying groups who are able to use "misinformation" and "smoke and mirrors to intimidate members of Congress without telling the whole truth about what is happening."

"Basically, the Russell Amendment takes civil rights law that we have had for decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which basically applies to just regular employers and the federal government, and takes those protections and says 'We ought to apply those to contractors and subcontractors and grants,'" Berry explained. "There are literally tens of thousands of small businesses across the country that seek to do business with the federal government via federal contracts, via grants."

"Thousands of those organizations are owned by religious people and people with sincerely held religious beliefs. Perhaps, they could be charitable organizations run with religious missions. And there are religious entities and churches that want to do contracting with the federal government," he added. "What the Russell Amendment basically does is make a level playing field for everyone."

Arriaga also explained how the NDAA has a broad impact that affects more than just religious charities and aid groups.

"Sometimes, Americans don't realize how gigantic the government is and how the mothership of all federal contracting is essentially this bill," she said. "For example, if you are a private university and one of your professors gets a grant to study rocks from a government agency, in essence, the entire university becomes a government contractor. This does not only affect a small segment of the population, this affects a gigantic number of organizations and hundreds of thousands of needy people around the world."

Congress' removal of the Russell Amendment from the NDAA comes after Senate Democrats had no problem approving a similar religious freedom protection included in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013.

"That was an exemption as part of that bill that tied into Title XII," Vitale explained. "It was nearly identical to the exemption that the Republicans added to the NDAA on the House side this year. It passed the Senate with Democrat support in 2013."

Steve Wagner, the head of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, also criticized the removal of the amendment and argued that Congressional Republicans were more interested in going home early than fighting for the wishes of the voters.

"It is clear Members of Congress did not get the message of this election cycle," Wagner said in a statement shared with CP. "Despite religious freedom being the top issue for many voters in 2016, Congressional Republicans just sold religious providers out in favor of lobbyists for military contractors and the ability to go home early for Christmas."

"What's more, it is mindboggling that Congressional leaders, who have the power would cut a closed-door deal to gut religious freedom protections for vital charities to appease special interests," he continued. "Congressional Republicans seem to have learned the wrong lesson from the election if they think this politics as usual will go unnoticed."

Earlier this year, it was reported that senior Obama administration officials said that vetoing the critically important spending bill is a possibility if the Russell Amendment was included in it.

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