The country’s largest LGBT rights group on Thursday went to battle against a religious-based amendment tacked onto the annual defense policy bill that advocates say would strip away gay rights in federal contracting.
The Human Rights Campaign called it the first legislation to pass a congressional committee that would roll back expanded rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at the federal level since the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry.
“We see this as social conservatives in the House trying to push what they view as a religious liberty exemption and use it as a sword rather than a shield,” David Stacy, the HRC’s director of government affairs, said in an interview.
The measure, introduced by freshman Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) at 12:30 a.m. as the House Armed Services Committee prepared to pass the defense bill, would require the government to give religious organizations it signs contracts with exemptions in federal civil rights law and the Americans Disabilities Act.
Those laws do not ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So the legislation would effectively override the executive order President Obama issued in 2014 prohibiting federal contractors from such discrimination.
The amendment provides an exemption for “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” contracting with the government. It quickly prompted heated exchanges between Russell and committee Democrats, who said it was purposefully unclear.
The measure, approved 33-29 on a mostly party-line vote at 2 a.m., could signal that the backlash in numerous states against LGBT anti-discrimination laws is now moving to Congress.
Stacy said that defeating the amendment on the House floor and in the Senate is now one of Human Rights Campaign’s top priorities. By late Thursday, a coalition of 42 civil rights groups called the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination had sent the committee a letter opposing the amendment.
It “would authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination in each and every federal contract and grant,” the letter said of the measure. “The government should never fund discrimination and no taxpayer should be disqualified from a job under a federal contract or grant because he or she is the ‘wrong’ religion.”
Stacy said the language in the amendment also would apply to organizations that receive federal grants. “If the government says, we’re going to fund a homeless shelter, they can refuse to hire an LGBT person to staff it even if 40 percent of the people they’re serving are LGBT,” he said.
Russell said his aim was simply to clarify “ambiguous language” concerning the rights of religious groups that already exists in federal law.
“Unfortunately, guidance from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, however well-intended, has caused confusion on the president’s executive order regarding religious contractors within the scope of their protections under law,” Russell told his colleagues. He said he wants to ensure that faith-based organizations — about 2,000 receive federal contracts every year — are on equal footing with secular ones.
But Democrats accused Russell of trying to mask what his amendment would really do: Allow federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees.
“The way this amendment is written, it doesn’t matter if you are a religious organization,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member.
“You can basically be a private contractor and this just gives you the right to discriminate if you decide you just don’t want to do business with gay people or with anybody else for that matter on a discriminatory basis within a protected class.”
The sweeping defense authorization bill is likely to go to the House floor in the next few weeks. The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to mark up its version.