capitol longshotWritten by Don Byrd

On Friday, the U.S. Senate voted 92-7 to adopt the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) without including a controversial amendment that would authorize government contractors to discriminate in hiring based on religion using taxpayer funds. The “Russell Amendment” was added to the version of the NDAA that passed the U.S. House, raising concerns among civil and religious liberty advocates including the Baptist Joint Committee.

Earlier this year, the Baptist Joint Committee joined several other religious liberty advocates in urging the defeat of the provision. The Russell Amendment to the NDAA, the coalition warned, “would authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination in each and every federal contract and grant.” The presence of the Russell Amendment was reportedly one of the sticking points that stalled the NDAA’s passage, despite it being essential legislation funding the U.S. military. (I named the controversy over the funding measure one of the Top Ten religious liberty stories of 2016.)

Fortunately, the bill that finally passed was stripped of the Russell Amendment language. The BJC’s Holly Hollman explained it this way in discussing this issue:

When the government contracts with a faith-based entity, it is contracting for the provision of secular services not to advance the group’s religious mission or identity. Religious groups who choose to compete for these secular grants for secular services should not expect the government to pay for employees chosen on the basis of religion to fulfill the group’s religious mission. 

Indeed. No American should be denied the opportunity to pursue a government-funded position because he or she is of the “wrong” religion. While religious organizations should have broad employment discretion in all of their privately funded positions, this discretion should not extend to government-funded positions. 

Drawing that line is an appropriate way to demonstrate an essential principle: it is possible to value both religious liberty and nondiscrimination at the same time.

While the issue seems to be resolved for this year, it is worth continuing to watch in years to come. Some have suggested that proponents may want to revisit the issue soon on the belief that the new presidential administration is more likely to support it than President Obama. Stay tuned.