A pay raise for U.S. military troops could face a long wait as Congress steps up a feud over gay rights in trying to wrap up a long-stalled 2017 defense authorization bill.
Democratic opponents want a House-Senate conference committee to strip a religious-liberties amendment from the final version of the bill, saying the amendment would allow federal defense contractors to discriminate against gays and lesbians by not doing business with them.
“This kind of discriminatory language is inappropriate anywhere, but it’s especially wrong to put unrelated anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) language in a national security bill,” said Washington state Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, one of the House conferees. “We know the issue is incredibly divisive.”
Conferees also are debating whether the bill should include a pay raise of as much as 2.1 percent for military personnel and a requirement that women register for the draft. But the disagreement over religious liberties has commanded most of the attention in recent days.
Forty-two senators, including Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state, sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committee this week, asking that the language be scrapped.
In the letter, the senators said the amendment would allow the use of taxpayer money “to harm hardworking Americans who deserve to be protected” from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
Among other things, the senators said the amendment would allow religiously affiliated organizations that get federal money to fire employees who use birth control or who are pregnant and unmarried. And they said employers could also use the language to terminate workers who marry same-sex partners or to refuse to consider applicants who follow different religious traditions.
Smith said the issue was so contentious as the House debated the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this year “that it actually shut down the appropriations process.”
“Why we’d keep in a provision like that when we’re trying to pass the NDAA is beyond me,” said Smith, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Republicans in many states have fought to advance so-called “religious-liberty” bills after the U.S. Supreme Court last year gave same-sex couples the right to marry. They argue that religious liberties will be trampled if they’re forced to comply with a court decision that they object to on moral or religious grounds.
Mississippi is one of the latest states to approve such a law.
In April, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a controversial bill that makes clear the state will not punish people who cite their religious beliefs in refusing to provide services to same-sex couples.
On Capitol Hill, the provision in the House version of the defense bill came from Republican Rep. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma Republican. It would protect “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” that receives a federal contract.
Opponents say the language is far too sweeping and could affect all federal contracts, not only those involving the military.
When the House approved Russell’s amendment in May, it prompted an immediate outcry from gay rights groups.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the GOP-led House had “followed in the footsteps of North Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana and other states that are targeting LGBT Americans.”