April 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
House panel approves measure undermining Obama’s LGBT order
Steve Russell, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) (Photo public domain)

A House committee is receiving significant attention for approving an amendment requiring women to register for the draft, but the same Republican-controlled panel incorporated early Thursday morning into a major defense spending bill a measure that would undermine President Obama’s executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.

The amendment, introduced by freshman Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), would require the federal government when contracting with religious organizations to afford them exemptions consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American 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 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 House Armed Services Committee approved the measure by a largely party-line 33-29 vote, including it as part of the House version of the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill. Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) joined Democrats in voting against the amendment.

The committee also reported out the full legislation to the House floor, but when the Republican leadership will take it up is unknown. The next opportunity to remove the amendment will be through a floor amendment when the full House considers the measure, but the House Rules Committee would first have to approve the measure, which would be challenging because the panel is stacked heavily in favor of Republicans. If not a House floor vote, the next opportunity to remove the measure will be the conference committee when the House and Senate lawmakers hammer out the different versions of their legislation.

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, condemned the measure in the aftermath of the committee vote.

“Rep. Russell’s harmful amendment would strip away existing protections for LGBT workers by undermining President Obama’s executive order on LGBT non-discrimination protections in federal contracting,” Stacy said. “Evidently some House Republicans want to emulate their state legislative colleagues in undermining legal protections for LGBT Americans. House Republican Leadership must get this language out of the bill.”

Jeff Tiller, a White House spokesperson, said the administration opposes “attempts to roll back non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers” in response to an inquiry over whether President Obama would veto the defense bill over the language.

“We strongly oppose attempts to roll back non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers,” Tiller said. “The president’s executive order with respect to federal contractors reflects his commitment to advancing equality in employment for the LGBT community, as well as his commitment to expanding opportunity for American workers and strengthening American business.”

But the Russell amendment wasn’t the only measure approved the committee approved as part of the defense spending bill relevant to LGBT people. The panel approved by unanimous vote in an en bloc package another measure introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) enabling transgender veterans to change their name on discharge documents.

Under current policy, transgender veterans who change their name to reflect their gender identity after leaving the service cannot receive amended discharge documents, or what the Pentagon calls the DD-214, to reflect that name change (although the U.S. military has broken this policy in a handful of cases). Every time they use this paperwork to prove their military service, the inconsistency in names forces the veteran to disclose they’re transgender.

Speier’s amendment would allow a trans veteran to update their discharge papers to reflect their new name following a change in gender identity or expression.

“Our transgender veterans deserve to have accurate military documents that don’t force them to come out with every job, college, and mortgage application,” Speier said in a statement. “A name change is so simple, and it’s the least we can do for their service to our nation. I am proud that we can provide the estimated 134,000 American transgender veterans with the respect they deserve.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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