The defense bill’s anti-LGBT poison pill

One of the biggest and most consequential bills on the congressional agenda for the lame duck will be final consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense spending bill. An anti-LGBT provision, which in reality is a poison pill, included in the House version of the defense bill is creating complications in reaching final agreement on the legislation. If it is not removed from the final version of the bill, members should oppose the legislation and take a stand for LGBT rights and equality.

How did we get here? Earlier this year, Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) successfully offered, late at night and with very limited debate, an amendment that would require every federal agency to allow religiously affiliated contractors and grantees (including large institutions like hospitals and universities) to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer funds. Because taxpayer-funded discrimination — regardless of what you call it — is wrong, Reps. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Congress must stop the march toward war with China Pelosi floats Democrat-led investigation of Jan. 6 as commission alternative MORE (D-Wash.)  and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) tried to offer a bipartisan amendment to strike that provision during the floor debate. However, the Rules Committee blocked this bipartisan effort to remove taxpayer-funded discrimination from the bill.


Now, according to press reports, the Russell Amendment is one of just a handful of issues that is preventing a final agreement on the defense bill.

This discriminatory provision poses great danger to LGBT people and women, and must be removed from the bill. Allowing religiously affiliated contractors and grantees to discriminate against individuals who don’t adhere to an employer’s religious tenets, isn’t right or fair. This could affect an individual in a same-sex relationship, someone who is undergoing gender transition, or a woman who is pregnant and unmarried.

To think that Congress could authorize this kind of taxpayer-funded discrimination is beyond the pale. The Russell Amendment is a thinly veiled attempt to import into federal grants and contracts the kind of discrimination sanctioned by the now infamous anti-LGBT law in North Carolina, as well as the so-called “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Mississippi, all of which have faced widespread and bipartisan backlash. Do Members of Congress really want to go down this road?

If the Russell Amendment is not removed from the defense bill, the ACLU as well as allies in the LGBT, women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and religious liberty communities will urge Members of Congress to oppose the bill. For the ACLU, failure to remove the Russell Amendment would be one of the prominent reasons we would strongly urge President Obama to veto the bill if it reached his desk.

This is one of the most significant threats to the LGBT community and women, not to mention religious liberty, we have seen in Congress in years. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value that guarantees us the right to believe – or not – as we wish, but it cannot be used to justify harming or discriminating against others with taxpayer dollars. Congress must reject the dangerous, discriminatory Russell Amendment.

Thompson is a Legislative Representative in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.