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Earlier this year, Rep. Steve Russell, a Republican representing Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district, added an amendment to The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Referred to as the “Russell Amendment,” the addition would allow any “religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” that receives federal grants and contracts to apply for “protections and exemptions” that are consistent with key sections of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Opponents of the amendment claim that it is a thinly veiled attempt to allow religiously affiliated organizations (including hospitals and universities) the ability to deny services to individuals whose identities or actions are at odds with the entity’s stated religious beliefs. For example, LGBTQ persons, women that use birth control, single mothers and 28 million federal employees through the removal of non-discrimination policies implemented by President Obama.
A similar piece of legislation, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was passed in Indiana in March of last year and signed by Vice President-elect, Mike Pence. Mr. Pence has a record of anti-LGBTQ stances, policies and legislation.
As Congress enters the lame duck session, there is still a chance for the NDAA, including the Russell Amendment, to pass. However, Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Reed (D-NV), as well as Representatives Thornberry (R-TX-13) and Smith (D-WA-9), the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, will ultimately decide whether the amendment will remain in this iteration of the NDAA. As Donald Trump assumes the presidency and Republicans retain control of both Congressional chambers, the Russell Amendment and other attempts to repeal anti-discrimination protections implemented by the Obama administration are expected. Individuals who may be impacted by these legislative repeals and carve-outs within nondiscrimination protections will want to carefully track actions in Congress.