November 15, 2016
In 2014, President Obama issued an Executive Order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people by entities that contract with or receive grants from the federal government. This was an important milestone in expanding essential job protections for our community, and it is now under serious threat. Sweeping language in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017 (NDAA) would nullify that Executive Order and authorize taxpayer-funded discrimination in each and every federal contract and grant. The Senate version of this essential legislation does not contain this harmful provision, named the Russell Amendment for its lead proponent in the House. As Congress resumes work following the election, members of the conference committee finalizing the bill will have to decide whether the Russell Amendment will be part of the reconciled legislation sent to the president. It is imperative that it is not.
Much is at stake, because despite significant gains in legal recognition of our relationships, job discrimination against LGBT people is all too real. In 2016 we at NCLR have been involved in several lawsuits against employers who fired or otherwise mistreated employees simply because of their sexual orientation or transgender status. One woman was fired because she married her wife. Another client, a transgender man, was fired simply for being himself. And another client had to sue FedEx to receive the pension earned by her deceased wife over a decades-long career with the company. We continue to receive regular calls to our Legal Help Line from individuals across the country facing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
And the employers we have had to take to court were secular entities. If companies that are not even claiming a religious basis for their discrimination will flout the law and fire someone for being LGBT, it is more than likely that employers who think they have a religious reason will gladly take up the invitation offered to them by the Russell Amendment and take adverse actions against LGBT employees. This we cannot afford.
And let’s be clear: this is not a “social issue,” as some would characterize it to minimize its importance. The loss of a job can present a severe financial challenge to an individual and their family. And despite popular misconceptions, LGBT people experience more poverty than those who are not LGBT; these disparities are compounded for LGBT people of color, for lesbian couples (particularly those with children), and those living in rural areas. As we continue to weather the blowback from achieving nationwide marriage equality last year, we must not allow discrimination against tens of millions of LGBT Americans to be codified.
As we have written elsewhere, the Obama administration has been a stalwart friend to the LGBT community, and the president has vowed to veto the NDAA if it reaches his desk with the Russell Amendment included. But it shouldn’t have to come to that. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator McCain can ensure that the final version of the NDAA is not saddled with this onerous provision. We urge him to maintain the stance he took a mere two years ago when similar legislation was being considered in Arizona. He opposed it then, and he should oppose it now. We must not allow a critical military authorization bill to be hijacked to roll back civil rights for millions of Americans.