Image of cross from Creative Commons. Credit: Geoff Stearns

Not long after the election, Congress is expected to tussle over an amendment that would allow religious organizations receiving federal dollars to discriminate against workers based on their beliefs.

The provision, which passed the House Armed Services Committee in late April, could give these groups the ability to fire a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock or deny benefits to married same-sex couples, for example. It is expected to be a major sticking point in the bill that authorizes funding for the nation’s military.

Rep. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma Republican who introduced the amendment, invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which include exemptions allowing faith-based organizations to hire employees who share their religious beliefs.

No federal statute categorically bars that. But some federal laws and regulations ban religious discrimination in employment by government contractors or recipients of government grants. So in effect, Russell’s amendment would allow faith-based organizations receiving federal funds to circumvent some of these prohibitions.

Each year, thousands of federal contracts are awarded to religious organizations that provide services to those in need, including veterans, refugees and prison inmates.

Russell’s amendment comes in response to federal guidelines developed in response to President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against against gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender workers.

Russell told the committee in April that the rules had caused confusion, and even forced some organizations “to shut down operations.” When contacted recently, Russell’s office declined to provide any specifics to support his claim, saying the groups had asked not to be named.

Last month, 89 House members signed a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee asking that the provision be dropped.

“The Russell language would open the entire federal procurement process to taxpayer funded religious discrimination,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia who led the effort to collect signatures opposing Russell’s provision in a written response. “The language turns the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on its head by undermining fundamental fairness and equal opportunity in the workplace. The funding of our nation’s critical defense needs should not be held hostage to coerce the passage of taxpayer funded discrimination.”

The Obama administration also has objected to the amendment, saying it would “undermine important protections put in place by the President to ensure that federal contractors and subcontractors do not engage in discriminatory employment practices.”

Russell did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

Russell’s amendment would apply to federal contracts, subcontracts, grants, cooperative agreements and purchase orders. It is not included in the Senate version of the bill. The House and Senate are expected to vote on a final authorization bill after the election.

Across the country, a series of exemptions have been carved out to give religious groups a pass from complying with anti-discrimination laws. For example, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in April issued an executive order that provided state contractors and employees with protections from discrimination based on things like race, color and sexual orientation. Churches and religious organizations are exempt.

A coalition of more than 90 civil liberties, religious, labor and women’s groups also have sent a letter opposing Russell’s amendment that urges senior members of the Armed Services Committees to dump the provision.

“It’s fundamentally un-American, and the government should not be funding discrimination,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which signed on to the letter. “No taxpayer should be rejected from a government-funded job because they’re of the wrong religion.”

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.