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Amendment loss disappoints religious liberty advocates

WASHINGTON (BP) — Religious freedom advocates have expressed deep disappointment about congressional leaders’ failure to protect the rights of faith-based organizations in a national defense bill.

The reaction came after it was revealed Nov. 29 the Russell Amendment would not be included in the final version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which designates nearly $620 billion in spending for the armed services. The Russell Amendment — sponsored by Southern Baptist Congressman Steve Russell of Oklahoma — would have protected the rights of non-profit religious contractors to maintain hiring practices in keeping with their beliefs.

The House of Representatives passed the NDAA with the Russell Amendment included, but a conference committee of legislators named to work out the differences between the versions approved by the congressional chambers failed to keep it in the final report.

Liberal politicians labeled the amendment as discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster the bill if it retained the provision, and President Obama warned he would veto it. The measure is the latest battleground in the ongoing conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty.

Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore described the removal of the Russell Amendment as “a moral and political tragedy.”

“Faith-based organizations that meet the needs of people in crisis deserve to be protected and promoted, not leveraged in culture war,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Conscience freedom and compassion are not enemies.

“I hope that religious charitable organizations will be free to serve according to their beliefs, not subjected to an ideological test that harms many who are waiting for aid,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments Dec. 2.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty charged the Senate’s Republican leaders with caving in to pressure from Democrats and the White House.

“Americans are fed up with Washington bureaucrats,” said Kristina Arriaga, the Becket Fund’s executive director, Dec. 1. “The leadership of the [next] Congress must double down against, not concede to, ridiculous, fact-free accusations meant to derail legitimate lawmaking.”

Foes of the Russell Amendment, however, applauded the news. “We successfully defeated the discriminatory Russell amendment & we are ready to keep on the fight,” the ACLU national office tweeted.

The religious freedom protections for faith-based contractors may gain new life in a new presidential administration.

Russell agreed to the removal of his amendment from the final version after his office “received assurances from senior Trump officials that this will be addressed by the new administration,” said spokesman Daniel Susskind Nov. 30, according to Bloomberg BNA. “Since this ambiguity was created with an executive order, it can be remedied in that fashion as well.”

President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in Jan. 20.

Obama issued an executive order in 2014 that barred federal contractors from discriminating in their hiring and firing practices on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It included an exemption for religious non-profits, but the ambiguous nature of the language caused problems for some faith-based contractors, said University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock in a Nov. 17 article for The Hill. The Russell Amendment was an attempt to clarify the language and apply to Defense contractors protections provided in another federal law, Laycock said.

Ron Crews, executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said in a written statement, “Several organizations that have provided significant services to the military have been told that they no longer qualify as vendors because of the president’s executive order concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. These vendors will serve without discriminating against anyone, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against by the government.”

Among those served by Christian and other religious non-profits via contracts with the Department of Defense — according to supporters of the Russell Amendment — are service members in war zones, human trafficking victims, refugees, homeless veterans and military families.

“Now, because Congress ducked this important issue, more service providers will be unable to continue offering their critical services, services that are sometimes only offered by religious groups,” Arriaga said in a written release. “It is the refugees, homeless, trafficking victims, veterans, and other vulnerable populations who will suffer the most from Congress’s choice to prioritize political expediency over principled governance.”