Defense bill amendment threatens LGBT protections
Legal protections for LGBT Americans have come under attack again on Thursday, as the House Armed Services Committee approved a defense bill amendment offered by Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a vote of 33-29.
The defense bill amendment will allow religious-owned corporations and organizations broad exemptions. If the amendment becomes law, it could affect thousands—if not millions—of LGBT employees in the United States.
Defense bill amendment by Rep. Steve Russell
In 2014, President Obama signed an executive order that prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
A separate executive order issued by Obama, on the other hand, says religiously affiliated contractors must be able to compete for contracts equally with secular contractors.
Rep. Russell said his intention in offering the defense bill amendment was to eliminate the ambiguity between the two orders and about what applies to Defense Department contractors.
The Russell amendment explicitly strips the words “sexual orientation and gender identity” from the NDAA, and the exemptions stated in the defense bill amendment were based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American with Disabilities Act—neither of which specifically mentions LGBT discrimination.
Russell claims that “this rule affirms prior policy that faith-based organizations are no less eligible than secular organizations to deliver federally funded services.”
House Republicans are citing “religious freedom”, saying that the defense bill amendment protects religious contractors from acting against their beliefs.
Defense bill amendment and backlash from LGBT advocates
The defense bill amendment has been strongly condemned by LGBT advocates.
“Religious exemption laws have nothing to do with protecting religious freedom – the First Amendment to the Constitution already does that. What these misguided laws actually do is sanction real harm to certain segments of the population. Discrimination in the guise of freedom is a threat to us all,” Pride at Work Executive Director Jerame Davis said in an official statement.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) labeled Rep. Russell “anti-LGBT”, and they also cautioned that the defense bill amendment will have “far-reaching intended and unintended consequences”.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee himself, noted: “The way this amendment is written, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious organization. Basically, you could be a private contractor, and this basically gives you the right to discriminate if you just decide that you don’t want to do business with gay people or anybody else for that matter within a protected class.”
With legal protections for LGBT people recently coming under threat in different parts of the country and on every level of government, it would seem that conservative lawmakers are pushing back against LGBT rights wherever they can and in response to same-sex marriages having been made legal across the United States since last year.
The entire defense bill will now pass to the House floor for approval, although it may be further amended before reaching that stage.