Congressional Democrats appear to have won a battle in defeating a defense bill amendment that would have allowed federal contractors claiming a religious affiliation to discriminate against at least 28 million employees with a broad range of identities.
But the war against codifying discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and reproductive health-care decisions will almost certainly continue into next year.
In striking a deal for the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), negotiators from the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate dropped the discriminatory Russell Amendment, which would have reversed President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBTQ federal contractors. In crafting his amendment to the House’s version of the bill, Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) had used broad language that extended far beyond federal contract recipients and opened up many more groups of people to discrimination.
Republicans, however, may have only agreed to ax the amendment because they’re confident they can find another opportunity to push through measures that purport to protect religious freedom at the expense of marginalized groups.
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“The Russell Amendment was in response to the executive orders. The NDAA was always an imperfect remedy for that problem,” senior committee aides told reporters in a background briefing, according to the Huffington Post and several other news outlets.
“Subsequent to the election, new paths have opened up to address those issues,” the aides from the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which share jurisdiction over the NDAA, reportedly said. “It’s still a very important issue for the members and they intend to pursue those other paths.”
A spokesperson for House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) confirmed the Huffington Post‘s account of the background briefing in an email to Rewire.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the Senate’s leading critic of the Russell Amendment, has claimed victory—for now.
“Eliminating this dangerous provision from the final bill is a victory, but let us be clear: the fight against bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination does not end with the Russell Amendment,” he said in a subsequent press release.
“Our government should have no part in funding discrimination—not now, not tomorrow, and not next year,” he continued. “In the aftermath of this presidential election, we must be even more vigilant in our efforts to protect the fundamental right of all Americans to equal protection under the law.”
Blumenthal in October led more than 40 of his colleagues—almost all the Senate’s Democrats along with two Independents—in attacking what he called “sweeping taxpayer-funded discrimination.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the “Big Four” negotiators on the final NDAA, opposed a 2014 state-level attempt to implement a similar religious imposition bill. McCain’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries about whether he would oppose federal efforts in the vein of the Russell Amendment.