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LGBTQ rights are on the line in battle over defense spending bill

David Stacy, government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign, acknowledged that the long-term prospects for barring the amendment from passing are challenging. But he said he’s bullish about the short term. Congress has little incentive to drag out a lame-duck session and that means passing a defense bill unburdened by a provision that has no bearing on the Pentagon’s core missions, according to Stacy.

“The blame could fall either way,” said Stacy, suggesting Republicans could be seen as obstructionists for insisting the amendment be preserved at the expense of speedy passage of the defense bill.

The provision is brief and requires any U.S. government office to provide protections and exemptions “to any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society that is a recipient of or offeror” for a federal contract.

Forty Senate Democrats plus two independents wrote in a letter last month that the provision would amount to government-sponsored discrimination by permitting religiously affiliated federal contractors to refuse to interview a job candidate whose faith differs from theirs and to fire employees who marry their same-sex partners or use birth control.

The provision would “vastly expand religious exemptions” under the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to allow contractors “to harm hardworking Americans who deserve to be protected from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity, or reproductive and other health care decisions,” they said in the letter.

Republicans argued the measure merely builds on existing law by ensuring that faith-based organizations that perform work for the U.S. government aren’t forced to act against their beliefs. The measure is known as the Russell amendment, named after its sponsor, Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla.

Paradoxically, opponents of the Russell amendment may find support from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who plays a central role in determining the contents of the defense policy bill.

The Arizona legislature passed a religious freedom bill in 2014 designed to give more legal protections to people who might be accused of discrimination for actions they took in accordance with religious beliefs. A frequently cited example is a business that denies service to gay or lesbian customers.

With the state facing a national backlash from business leaders, including the National Football League, McCain urged then-Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the legislation. She did.

“We’re hoping he sees this the same way,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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