- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Republican-led Congress has shirked its duty to help people of faith exercise their beliefs in public under an administration that is hostile to their conscientious objections, advocates for religious freedom say.

Nuns have been required to provide birth control to their employees at Roman Catholic charities. Pro-life pregnancy centers must advertise state-sponsored abortions to their patients.

“We have witnessed a host of ominous signs for religious liberty in recent years,” said Tim Bradley, a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life nonprofit think tank that documented 16 instances this year of the erosion of freedom of conscience at state and federal levels.

The latest sign: Under a veto threat, the House and Senate recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act without an amendment that would have expanded religious exemptions for contractors and grant recipients. Called the Russell Amendment, it would have allowed federally contracted employers to hire and manage workers based on their religious beliefs.

“Now, because Congress ducked this important issue, more service providers will be unable to continue offering their critical services — services that are sometimes only offered by religious groups,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It is the refugees, homeless, trafficking victims, veterans and other vulnerable populations who will suffer the most from Congress’ choice to prioritize political expediency over principled governance.”

The $618.7 billion military spending bill sits on the desk of President Obama, who threatened to veto the must-pass legislation if it included the Russell Amendment.

Critics of the amendment have said it would have allowed religious-based employers to discriminate against the LGBTQ community in hiring and in providing benefits, such as refusing to hire an applicant because she is transsexual or denying a gay worker access to a company’s health care plan. The federal government bans such practices in its dealings and is right to require the same of its contractors, they say.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, praised Congress’ passage of the defense spending bill without the Russell Amendment.

“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,” Ms. Hollman said in a statement. “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.”

But other religious liberty advocates said Congress’ failure to keep the Russell Amendment in the legislation is a bad omen, especially for religious charities striving to make hiring and staffing decisions consistent with their faith without fear of governmental reprisal.

“Religious liberty — protecting great works that these groups are doing for the poor, for the vulnerable, for those in need, often going places where no one is willing to go — that shouldn’t be a political football,” said Amy Vitale, a fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We should all be able to support provisions that have existed and functioned great for decades.”

Ms. Vitale said the amendment — crafted by Rep. Steve Russell, Oklahoma Republican — would have allowed religious contractors and grantees to continue to work with the federal government without sacrificing their religious identities in the process.

“In the same way that you would not expect a Democratic office to have to hire a Republican or vice versa, in the same way that the Sierra Club would want to hire people that support its mission of environmental care, faith-based organizations have always been free to hire people who support the same tenets and the mission of their organization,” she said.

Similar religious exemptions exist in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

House Republicans sought to shore up protections for religious contractors in response to an executive order signed by Mr. Obama in 2014 creating special protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for the purposes of federal contracting.

The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act contained the Russell Amendment. But the Senate removed it after Democrats, bolstered by Mr. Obama’s veto threat, drew a line over the measure.

Led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, 42 Democrats signed a letter opposing the amendment, arguing that it would “significantly — and needlessly — hamper the great progress our nation has made in protecting the rights of LGBT individuals.”

Melanie Israel, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, said Republicans have a chance to bolster protections for religious freedom once Donald Trump becomes president.

“With the incoming administration, we’re not going to necessarily have that same issue. So I think there’s definitely still a desire by folks on the Hill to, whether approaching it as a stand-alone piece of legislation or as an amendment to something else, the president-elect can rescind the executive order that started all of this in the first place,” Ms. Israel said.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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