Religious Liberty Battles in House on Military and Veterans Legislation

Religious liberty was on the battlefield in the U.S. House of Representatives this week during consideration of two annual bills – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act (MilCon-VA). In the first bill, House Republicans successfully preserved a religious freedom provision, and, in the second, another attempt to nullify that language was narrowly turned back.

During consideration of NDAA (H.R. 4909) in the House Armed Services Committee last month, Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) successfully attached an amendment intended to clarify that faith-based organizations that contracted or received grants from the government maintained longstanding religious freedom employment rights. These had been made uncertain after President Obama issued an executive order in 2014 requiring federal contractors to recognize new rights based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” similar to a bill known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that had failed repeatedly in Congress. Unfortunately, despite pleas even from those who were core faith outreach leaders in his own presidential campaigns, President Obama at that time declined to offer any specific religious liberty protection in his order.

This week when NDAA came to the House Floor, Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) attempted to lead a coalition to strip the Russell amendment from the bill. While they were unsuccessful in securing a vote on NDAA, which was approved by the full House with the Russell amendment intact, liberals made another attempt to nullify this religious freedom protection the following day during consideration of the MilCon-VA bill (H.R.4974). Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment that would have reinforced President Obama’s executive order, but, after last minute scrambling, it was defeated by one vote (vote total here). Rep. Maloney did not mince words about what he thought of those who were concerned with, as he said on the House Floor, “some religious exemption.” After the vote, he tweeted, “My colleagues just voted to support discrimination – they are hateful. SHAME.” However, in a memo released earlier this month debunking such rhetoric, Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, noted, “Religious staffing by religious organizations is not ‘discrimination.’ The Title VII religious exemption does not vanish simply because a religious organization receives government funds.”

The Senate may consider its version of NDAA next week. The White House has listed the Russell amendment as one of its many reasons for threatening a veto of the House bill.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: May 20, 2016

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