WASHINGTON — House Republicans engaged in a heated debate on Thursday in voting down a discrimination amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act while allowing a similar bill providing protections for religious entities to remain intact.
The Act, which is renewed afresh each year, outlines the allotted spending for the U.S. military for the coming year. Lawmakers commonly propose amendments to attach to the bill, most of which apply to defense issues or other related matters.
This year, among the amendments presented, Rep. Steve Russell, R-OK, submitted a proposal to apply the religious exemption in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to federal contractors.
“Any branch or agency of the federal government shall, with respect to any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society that is a recipient of or offerer for a federal government contract, subcontract, grant, purchase order, or cooperative agreement, provide protections and exemptions consistent with sections 702(a) and 703(e)(2) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” it reads.
Russell said that his amendment was meant to help clarify “ambiguous language” surrounding Barack Obama’s order concerning federal contractors and discrimination 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,” he said.
Legal groups such as First Liberty expressed support for the measure, stating that the 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,” opined attorney Mike Berry. “Beyond that, religious support contractors will continue to be subject to all applicable federal regulations.”
But Democrats denounced the Russell amendment, construing it to mean that it would permit discrimination against homosexuals.
“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,” opined Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Therefore, Rep. Sean Maloney, D-NY, who is openly homosexual and the co-chair of the House “LGBT Equality Caucus,” proposed another amendment that would ban entities from receiving government contracts if they are believed to have policies in place deemed discriminatory of homosexuals. He called the Russell amendment “hate-based language.”
At first it seemed that the amendment might pass, with 217 votes in favor of the measure, but according to reports, House Republicans extended the voting time by several minutes and encouraged their colleagues to change their minds.
Reps. Darrell Issa, David Valadao, Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters—all of California—and Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, Rep. David Yong of Iowa and Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine all changed their vote at the last minute, which ended in the defeat of Maloney’s measure—by a single vote.
“Shame! Shame!” Democratic lawmakers called out. Maloney blamed the outcome on Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accusing him of pulling tricks.
“The leader went around and twisted their arms, and they voted for discrimination,” he said on the House floor. “The members who switched are going to hold a very special place in American history as the people who didn’t have the guts to stand up and support the will of the House.”
But Speaker Paul Ryan’s office said that Maloney’s amendment could have placed the entire Defense Act at risk as Republicans would not then have voted for it with the text included.
“Our veterans and troops were prioritized over a political messaging amendment that could have jeopardized the final passage of the appropriations bill,” spokesperson AshLee Strong said in a statement.