Rep. Steve Russell (R), author of the Russell Amendment. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUE OGROCKI

Republican leaders in Congress have quashed a bipartisan attempt to remove the so-called Russell Amendment — a sweeping “religious liberty” provision that would allow federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees — from this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

The defense budget bill now heads to the floor of the House with the anti-LGBT language attached, prompting furious backlash from lawmakers, civil rights groups, and the Obama Administration.

“It is simply stunning that House Republicans have decided to make targeting LGBT Americans a priority in the Defense Authorization bill,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) said in a statement.

Pelosi criticized Republican leaders for not allowing a vote on the bipartisan move to reverse the amendment. “Speaker Ryan’s pledges of regular order, transparency, and openness continue to ring more hollow each and every day,” she concluded.

The amendment would effectively overturn President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT workers in federal contracts — what the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus described in a statement as “a signature victory of the LGBT equality movement.” That order protected LGBT employment rights for 28 million people.
Members of the caucus criticized the amendment’s sweeping language, which makes every contract, subcontract, grant, cooperative agreement, and purchase order awarded by every federal agency eligible for a “religious exemption” from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rep. Richard Hanna (R) told the Republican Congressional leaders that the amendment’s vague language “could be exploited as a license to discriminate against LGBT Americans by almost any federal contractor” — not just defense contractors.

The White House released a statement Monday warning that the “religious liberty” amendment was one of many reasons President Obama would veto the bill as it’s currently drafted.
Calling the provision a “step in the wrong direction,” the Administration emphasized that religious liberty can be protected without rolling back workplace protections based on sexual identity and preference: “This Administration is committed to promoting equal employment opportunities for all Americans regardless of who they are or who they love while at the same time preserving longstanding safeguards in the law for religious liberty, including the religious exemption codified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The Senate Committee on Armed Services has not yet begun consideration of its version of the defense budget, which has no such amendment. Even on the core issue of military spending, the Senate bill differs significantly from the House bill, which means the two will have to be resolved in conference.

Cory Herro is an intern for ThinkProgress.