Last month, Republican lawmaker Steven Russel of Oklahoma slipped an amendment into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act – a law which funds the Department of Defense and must be reauthorized every year – essentially making discrimination against LGBT people legal. The sneaky amendment would also allow employers to fire workers who don’t share their “moral” values.
Here’s the thing about bigots, racists and homophobes: they know damned good and well that their positions are untenable to most thinking, compassionate Americans. They’re also aware of the “Separation Clause” in the Constitution that puts a wall between Church and State (for the benefit and protection of BOTH institutions). That doesn’t stop right wing politicians like Russell from (ab)using the legislative process in their ongoing attempts to shove their narrow-minded values down our collective throats.
In a display of the skulduggery and cowardice typical of his ilk, Russell stuck his amendment into the NDAA in the dead of the night, when he had hoped nobody was noticing. So far, it has worked; the House of Representatives passed the bill without any discussion.
As it stands now, the House version of the NDAA would allow any company or organization receiving federal funding or government contracts to discriminate against employees who choose not to embrace their religious affiliation and moral values. This would not only affect same-sex couples and transgender people; Russell’s provision would also affect single women choosing to use contraception as well as members of a minority faith, or anything else that went against the organization’s stated beliefs.
The Hill argues that the Russell Amendment is necessary “because it provides important protection for military chaplains.” By way of example, Mike Berry, writer of that piece, writes:
“A Muslim chaplain may request that a prospective religious support contractor—let’s say a Muslim vendor who supplies prayer rugs—adhere to Islam’s teachings on marriage. Likewise, a Catholic chaplain may request that a prospective ecclesiastical supplier comply with the Catholic Church’s teachings on the theology of the body.”
While that is conceivably a legitimate argument, the problem with the Russell Amendment is that, like most amendments of its kind, it is far too broad. It would be one thing if it applied only to clergy in the military and involved only things such as prayer rugs, sacramental wine, prayer beads, and kosher food items. As the amendment is currently written, it would allow virtually any company or organization getting federal money to legally discipline or terminate an employee for being gay, being unmarried and pregnant, or being affiliated with a fringe religion – or none at all… the list could go on and on.
Fortunately, the House version of the bill must be reconciled with the Senate version – and Senate Democrats are standing firm. In a letter to the Armed Services Committee, Senator Richard Blumenthall of Connecticut exhorted the Committee to strip the Russell Amendment from the NDAA on the basis that it would:
“[E]ssentially sanction federally funded religious discrimination, contradicting the First Amendment which prohibits religious exemptions like this that result in harm to others.”
42 other Democratic senators – including Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine – have signed Blumenthal’s letter.
If the Committee fails to remove the Russell Amendment from the final bill, it is possible that Senate Democrats will filibuster. While Senator Blumenthal did not mention that possibility explicitly, he has said that he and his Democratic colleagues “will have to consider all the options.”