House Republicans declined late Tuesday to remove a provision from major defense spending legislation that would undercut President Obama’s executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.
The House Rules Committee, which oversees floor consideration of legislation, refused to make in order a bipartisan amendment introduced by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) removing the language from the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill.
The committee, which is heavily stacked in favor of Republicans, voted down the proposal on a 9-3 party-line vote after gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the panel, moved to make the Dent amendment in order.
“I’m disappointed by the decision,” Dent said in a statement to the Blade. “I thought the language adopted by the Armed Services Committee was overly-broad and could lead to discrimination against some in the LGBT community. I strongly believe that efforts to protect religious liberty must be linked to protections against discrimination. We cannot fall into the misconception that religious freedom and nondiscrimination are mutually exclusive.”
Co-sponsors of the bipartisan measure are Rep. Adam Smith, (D-Wash.), Richard Hanna (D-N.Y.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
The committee also declined to make in order an amendment proposed by Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) seeking to prohibit discrimination against federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, although no vote was taken on the proposal.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) excoriated Republicans for keeping the language in the defense authorization bill, which could come up for a final vote in the House as soon as this week.
“The Defense Authorization bill should be about making our country safe, and honoring the oath we take to protect and defend the American people,” Pelosi said. “It should not be a place where the most extreme elements of the Republican Conference are allowed to codify hatred and intolerance against Americans based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Also condemning the decision by the Rules Committee was House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who said he’s “outraged” Republicans decided to keep the language in the $583 billion defense package.
“Congress owes it to LGBT workers and their families to ensure that they are equally protected by our laws and not singled out for mistreatment,” Hoyer said. “When Republicans in Congress take actions that signal otherwise, it emboldens those who would bully, harass, and discriminate. I will continue to oppose efforts to undo the Administration’s anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who’s gay and a co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said the decision to include an anti-LGBT amendment in the defense authorization bill is “incredible disappointing.”
“NDAA is about keeping our country safe and strong,” Takano said. “What these lawmakers fail to understand is that the source of America’s strength is both our military power and the respect we offer to every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It is ironic and sad that a defense bill would be used to undermine the principles we are fighting to protect.”
Last month, Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) inserted the amendment in the defense package during the House Armed Services Committee markup of the legislation.
It would require the federal government when contracting with religious organizations to afford them exemptions consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since neither of those laws prohibit anti-LGBT bias, the amendment would enable religious organizations doing business with the U.S. government to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Because the measure would have the force of law, it would overrule the executive order signed by President Obama in 2014 prohibiting contractors doing more than $10,000 a year in business with the U.S. government from engaging in anti-LGBT discrimination against employees. The president included no religious exemption in his order, although he left in place a Bush-era exemption allowing religious organizations contracting with the U.S. government to favor co-religionists in hiring practices.
The amendment provides an exemption for “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” contracting with the U.S. government. All of those terms are undefined in the amendment, but the lack of definition for “religious corporation” could allow courts to construe the term broadly applies to any federal contractor — not just religious organizations — in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
The Obama administration said it “strongly objects” to the provision in the defense authorization bill in a Statement of Administration Policy warning President Obama would veto the bill for a host of reasons, including language prohibiting the transfer of detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility without a plan approved by Congress. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans included the anti-LGBT component “for reasons that seem rather perverse.”
The next opportunity to remove the amendment the from the defense authorization bill will be after both chambers approve their versions of the defense authorization bill and have to hammer out the differences in conference committee. Unlike the House legislation, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill as it stands lacks the anti-LGBT language.
Matt McTighe, executive order for Freedom for All Americans, said the Republican-controlled should take the opportunity to remove the language during conference committee.
“The Russell amendment is a sloppily written provision that is intended to roll back existing protections for LGBT people by undermining President Obama’s executive order,” McTighe said. “Americans overwhelmingly support protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Many will rightfully wonder why lawmakers in Congress are seeking not only to take us backwards, but to do so with an amendment attached to a bill that funds our military. This amendment does nothing to strengthen existing protections for religious freedom – its singular focus is to harm LGBT people.”