Cantwell, Murray: Our Government Should Have No Part in Funding Discrimination

Lawmakers join Senator Blumenthal, colleagues, to demand that a provision rolling back critical workplace protections be stripped from final Defense Authorization bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Today, as negotiations on the conference report of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reach their final stage, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), along with 39 other Senators, raised concerns regarding a dangerous provision included in the House-passed NDAA that would roll back critical workplace protections and enable taxpayer-funded discrimination. The Senators wrote the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senates Armed Services Committees today urging them 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 reproductions 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 signed by: U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN), U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), U.S. Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), U.S. Senator Angus King (I-ME), and U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA).

Winnie Stachleberg, Executive Vice President for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress said: “While too many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers face hardship for being who they are, extreme members of Congress are trying to rollback the clock and use taxpayer dollars to fund discrimination. Hardworking LGBT employees deserve to be treated equally – which is why more than 70% of Americans support comprehensive nondiscrimination rights for LGBT people. The Russell Amendment is out-of-step with American values and should not be used to undermine our national defense and our civil rights.”

Louise Melling, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Center for Liberty said: “The Russell Amendment is one of the most significant threats to LGBT people and women we have seen in Congress in years. It must be removed from the defense bill – freedom, equality and fairness are at stake. The ACLU is proud to stand with Senator Blumenthal and the 41 other signers of this letter as a show of force in rejecting taxpayer-funded discrimination.”

The Human Rights Campaign’s Government Affairs Director David Stacy said: “We’re pleased to see so many Senators step forward and agree that taxpayer dollars should never be used to discriminate. The Russell Amendment is a sweeping expansion of taxpayer funded discrimination that undermines existing non-discrimination protections for LGBT Americans. This provision is terrible policy created by an even worse process – it was adopted in the dark of night despite bipartisan opposition and never having had a hearing. This has no place in the annual defense bill. Senator McCain should stand with the majority of fair-minded Arizonans – and Americans all across the country – and drop this discriminatory provision.”

Dana Singiser, Vice President of Government Relations and Public Policy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America said: “The Russell Amendment enables government-funded discrimination, plain and simple. This dangerous provision, passed by the House in the dark of night, would allow federal contractors to discriminate against any employee who does not conform with the employer’s religious views. This means an employer could fire a woman for using birth control, a man for marrying his same-sex partner, or an individual who undergoes a gender transition. We join Senator Blumenthal and the dozens of other signers of this letter in calling for this amendment to be removed from the National Defense Authorization Act conference report.”

Ilyse Hogue, President, NARAL Pro-Choice America said: “Across the country, anti-choice GOP senators and candidates are trying, unsuccessfully, to run as fast as possible away from Donald Trump and his comments that he’d punish women for choosing abortion. But in Washington, those very senators are trying to enact legislation that would use taxpayer funds to do just that—discriminate against and punish women, LGBTQ people, and others under the guise of religious liberty. Instead of giving employers permission to fire a woman for having an abortion, taking birth control, or even living with her partner, these Senators should focus on legislation that helps women and families get ahead.”

The Reverend Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said: “For the past twenty years, I’ve fought against legislation and policies that would sanction taxpayer-funded employment discrimination and this is the most sweeping proposal yet. That some members of Congress would push this language is particularly shocking considering the intense backlash seen in states like Indiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arizona when they considered ‘religious freedom’ laws that could, like the Russell Amendment, sanction discrimination under the guise of religion.  Congress should take heed and say no to the Russell Amendment, just as they did to proposals like this when they were packaged as the Bush Faith-Based Initiative. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but it does not give you a right to discriminate, especially with taxpayer dollars.  No one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job because they are the ‘wrong’ religion.”

The full text of today’s letter is available here.