GOP, Dems clash over LGBT rights in defense bill amendment

GOP, Dems clash over LGBT rights in defense bill amendment
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Democrats and civil rights organizations are sparring with Republicans over an amendment added to an annual defense policy bill early Thursday morning relating to federal contractors and grant recipients.

Opponents slammed the amendment as rolling back lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, while Republicans argued it clarified ambiguities in existing law and protects religious contractors from acting against their beliefs.

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The amendment to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act was passed 33-29 by the House Armed Services Committee.

In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

A separate executive order issued by Obama says religiously affiliated contractors must be able to compete for contracts equally with secular contractors.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), who offered the amendment, said his intention was to eliminate the ambiguity between the two orders and about what applies to Defense Department contractors.

“This is not what is being characterized,” he said. “This rule affirms prior policy that faith-based organizations are no less eligible than secular organizations to deliver federally funded services.”

“I am sensitive to the objections by the members on the other side of the aisle, however that is not the fight that you’re looking for,” he later added.

But Democrats said the amendment itself was ambiguous and would allow federal contractors and grant recipients to discriminate.

“The way this amendment is written, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious organization,” said Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithJudd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem 'Marketplace of ideas' turns 100 — it's not what it used to be Overnight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the committee. “Basically, you could be a private contractor, and this basically gives you the right to discriminate if you just decide that you don’t want to do business with gay people or anybody else for that matter within a protected class." 

In opposing the amendment, leading LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign invoked debates going in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi over LGBT rights. 

“Rep. Russell’s harmful amendment would strip away existing protections for LGBT workers by undermining President Obama’s executive order on LGBT non-discrimination protections in federal contracting,” HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy said in a written statement. “Evidently some House Republicans want to emulate their state legislative colleagues in undermining legal protections for LGBT Americans. House Republican Leadership must get this language out of the bill.”