Wyden, Merkley: Our Government Should Have No Part In Funding Discrimination

Wyden, Merkley: Our Government Should Have No Part In Funding Discrimination

Lawmakers demand that a provision rolling back critical workplace protections be stripped from final Defense Authorization bill

Washington, D.C. – As negotiations between House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reach their final stage, Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and a group of other United States Senators today raised concerns regarding a dangerous provision included in the House-passed NDAA that would roll back critical workplace protections and enable taxpayer-funded discrimination. 

In a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the senators urged the conference committees to strip this provision – known as the Russell Amendment – from the final bill.

“If enacted, [the Russell Amendment] would vastly expand religious exemptions under the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to allow religiously-affiliated organizations receiving federal funds to engage in discriminatory hiring practices – using taxpayer dollars to harm hardworking Americans who deserve to be protected from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity, or reproductive and other healthcare decisions,” the senators wrote. “Our government should have no part in funding discrimination. [The Russell Amendment] is at odds with the values and beliefs that continue to advance our great nation.”

On the heels of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and similar attacks on equality in Mississippi and North Carolina, the Russell Amendment is a sweeping provision that undermines protections that guard Americans against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity, or reproductive and other healthcare decisions. Among other actions, under the Russell Amendment, religiously affiliated organizations that receive federal funds could claim a right to use those funds to:

  • Fire an employee who uses birth control or who is pregnant and unmarried;
  • Fire an employee who marries their same-sex partner; and
  • Refuse to interview someone because they follow a religious tradition different from the employer.

Today’s letter is also signed by: U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Dick Durbin, D-Ill.,  Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Al Franken, D-Minn., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Christopher Coons, D-Del., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Tom Carper, D-Del., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Mark Warner, D-Va., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Angus King, I-Maine, and  Robert P. Casey, Jr., D-Penn.

The full text of today’s letter is attached and below:

Dear Chairmen and Ranking Members:

           We write in strong opposition to Section 1094 of the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA). As conference negotiations are now in their final stages, we urge you to ensure that Section 1094 is removed from the final version of this legislation. If enacted, Section 1094 would vastly expand religious exemptions under the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to allow religiously-affiliated organizations receiving federal funds to engage in discriminatory hiring practices – using taxpayer dollars to harm hardworking Americans who deserve to be protected from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity, or reproductive and other healthcare decisions.

            Section 1094 applies not only to the Department of Defense, but to the entire array of federal agencies and their contractors and grantees. This would have far-reaching consequences, as taxpayer-funded discrimination would be allowed in every contract, subcontract, grant, cooperative agreement, and purchase order awarded by federal agencies conducting business with religiously-affiliated organizations. This provision would jeopardize the protections against discrimination for LGBT workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity enshrined in President Obama’s Executive Order 13672 Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity by Contractors and Subcontractors. As such, Section 1094 would significantly – and needlessly – hamper the great progress our nation has made in protecting the rights of LGBT individuals.

            This provision would also allow religiously-affiliated contractors and grantees to inquire about and discriminate against employees or potential employees based on an individual’s religion. No one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job based on their religion. This provision would be an affront to religious freedom for all Americans. Allowing Section 1094 to be included in the NDAA would essentially sanction federally funded religious discrimination, contradicting the First Amendment which prohibits religious exemptions like this that result in harm to others. This discrimination erodes the freedoms that our military has fought for generations to protect. 

Moreover, this harmful provision would also permit the firing of or refusal to hire hardworking Americans based on their personal choices if those choices are at odds with an employer’s religious tenets. It would particularly harm women, as religiously-affiliated contractors and grantees would be able to discriminate against individuals based on their personal reproductive healthcare decisions, including using birth control, becoming pregnant while unmarried, using in vitro fertilization to conceive a child, and accessing other reproductive health care that otherwise violate particular religious tenets. An individual’s personal, private reproductive health decisions should not put them at risk of workplace discrimination.

As such, we urge you to protect the dignity of all Americans and exclude Section 1094 from the final version of the NDAA. Our government should have no part in funding discrimination. Section 1094 is at odds with the values and beliefs that continue to advance our great nation. We thank you for your consideration and look forwarding to working with you on this issue.