May 17, 2016 at 5:35 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
White House ‘strongly objects’ to anti-LGBT defense bill
Josh Earnest, White House, Barack Obama Administration, press, gay news, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conveyed opposition to the anti-LGBT amendment in the House defense bill. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Ahead of an expected vote in the U.S. House on major defense spending legislation, the White House is making clear it “strongly objects” to a provision in the bill that would undermine President Obama’s executive order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.

The White House Office of Management & Budget unveiled on Monday its Statement of Administration Policy, a formal document outlining the administration’s position on legislation pending before Congress, on the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill, which could come to a vote on the House floor as soon as Wednesday. The 17-page document signals President Obama would veto the bill.

The administration objects to numerous provisions in the $583 billion package, including an amendment inserted by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) last month during committee markup that would undercut Obama’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The bill also continues unwarranted restrictions regarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, would prevent the United States from fulfilling its obligations under a treaty, and includes non-germane policy riders, such as those undermining the Endangered Species Act as well as public land management statutes, and those that would make it easier to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, which have nothing to do with national defense,” the statement says.

Under a heading titled, “Exemptions to Civil Rights Laws,” the statement elaborates on the White House opposition to the provision, known as Section 1094, and says the administration “strongly objects” to it.

“This Administration is committed to promoting equal employment opportunities for all Americans regardless of who they are or who they love while at the same time preserving longstanding safeguards in the law for religious liberty, including the religious exemption codified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the statement says. “In authorizing certain Federal awardees to discriminate in Government-funded jobs, section 1094 represents a step in the wrong direction for our country that will keep qualified American workers from being able to hold jobs funded by the American people.”

Under questioning from Washington Blade on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to say explicitly whether Obama would veto the defense authorization bill over the anti-LGBT language alone, but hinted that was the case, calling the provision seeking to enable discrimination “perverse.”

“The president has on a number of occasions protected his ability to use that executive authority in his negotiations with Congress because we know that there are some in Congress, who for reasons that seem rather perverse to me, believe that the president shouldn’t be taking actions to prevent discrimination,” Earnest said.

Earnest said predicting whether Congress will ultimately remove the provision before sending the bill to Obama’s desk is difficult, but added the onus is on the Republican-controlled Congress to take that action.

“After all, this is their responsibility, right?” Earnest said. “Republicans have a strong majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans have a strong majority in the United States Senate. So, ultimately, it’s Republicans who need to carry the weight of figuring out how to ensure that our national security professionals, and our men and women in uniform have the authority and funding that they need to protect the country.”

The amendment 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.

Russell’s office didn’t immediately respond on Tuesday to the Blade’s request for comment on White House opposition to the lawmaker’s amendment.

One House Republican leading the charge against the amendment is Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who’s considered a pro-LGBT Republican and supports same-sex marriage.

Dent has submitted to the House Rules Committee, which overseas floor consideration of the legislation, a proposed amendment that would strip the legislation of the language.

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.).

Also submitted to the Rules Committee is a bi-partisan pro-LGBT amendment proposed by Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who’s running for U.S. Senate in her state, as well as Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Hanna seeking to bar discrimination against federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It remains to be seen whether the House Rules Committee, which is heavily stacked in favor of Republicans, will adopt either of these amendments during its upcoming meeting on Tuesday.

If the anti-LGBT provision is left intact, the next chance to remove it would be during conference committee negotiations between the House and Senate over the defense bill. Unlike the House legislation, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill as it stands lacks the anti-LGBT language.

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs for the Center for American Progress, said the White House is “doing exactly what they should be doing” to make clear its opposition to the provision.

“I think knowing that the administration has a host of issues with the defense authorization bill, including this one, causes the House Republicans to consider whether they need to make changes to the bill,” Stachelberg said.

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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