Why military chaplains need the Russell Amendment

This week, the House Rules Committee will consider the so-called Russell Amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a provision that would apply the religious exemption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to federal contractors. This is a necessary addition to the bill because it provides important protection for an often-overlooked contingent in our armed forces: military chaplains. In our armed forces, military commanders are responsible for providing essential religious support programs for our troops. Typically, commanders delegate the day-to-day operations of support programs to their military chaplains. And generally speaking, our chaplains have substantial discretion to supplement religious support programs via Department of Defense contractors and vendors.

Chaplains use diverse and varied contractors to help facilitate their ministerial services. For example, a chaplain may seek a vendor to provide ecclesiastical supplies such as communion wine or religious music for worship, and virtually everything in between. Historically, chaplains have been free to use vendors who meet their denomination’s religious standards with little or no government interference.

{mosads}For example, 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. The government has historically protected chaplains’ rights to choose contractors who align with the chaplain’s denominational doctrine. But now, the historical respect and protection of our chaplains has come to an end.

In 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order (EO) 13672, which severely restricts and undermines our chaplains’ ability to choose vendors that align with their denomination’s religious eligibility criteria. EO 13672 forces all federal contractors and subcontractors to affirmatively state that they make employment decisions without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. Non-complying contractors are declared ineligible to contract with the federal government. Notably, EO 13672 does not provide any religious exemptions.

Under EO 13672, the Muslim chaplain would be forced to use a vendor who disregards Islamic teaching on marriage, while the Catholic chaplain seeking ecclesiastical supplies must purchase from a vendor who ignores the church’s doctrine on sexuality.

What many may not realize is that all military chaplains are required to have the backing of an endorsing body. Any chaplain who runs afoul of the tenets and teachings of their endorser is likely to forfeit their endorsement, meaning they can no longer serve as a chaplain. EO 13672 thus places military chaplains between a rock and a hard place: cease seeking religious support or cease being a chaplain.

Thankfully, Congressman Steve Russell (R-OK) recognized this moral dilemma, and submitted a smart, necessary amendment to this year’s NDAA. The Russell Amendment simply applies the well-established religious exemption found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to federal contractors, including military religious vendors. The Title VII religious exemption already applies to non-military religious entities. In other words, the Russell Amendment creates an equal playing field for military religious vendors, ensuring military chaplains remain free to choose vendors who align with the teachings of their denomination.

Title VII’s tried-and-true religious exemption exists precisely so that religious organizations may continue to provide vital support to the government while staying true to their religious identities. Moreover, Title VII’s religious exemptions are narrowly tailored such that they only apply to a religious organization’s employment decisions. Beyond that, religious support contractors will continue to be subject to all applicable federal regulations.

Under current law, military chaplains are being asked to choose between forgoing the religious support they need to fulfill their duties or ignoring the teachings of their faith, in defiance of their denominational directives. The Russell Amendment is a common-sense solution to EO 13672’s unnecessary moral dilemma. 

Military chaplains make great sacrifices to serve our troops. We would never stand for a federal bureaucracy inhibiting the ability of our military’s quartermasters to supply our troops with what they need to accomplish their mission.  Why would we allow that same bureaucracy to make it harder for chaplains to pursue their critical mission to our troops? 

Mike Berry, Esq., is Director of Military Affairs and Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute.  He can be reached at mberry@firstliberty.org.


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