Politics & Government

Standoff brewing over LGBT issue in defense bill

WASHINGTON -- Some House members are trying to strip a provision from the defense authorization bill that they fear would lead to more discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The provision in question was added during a late-night markup of the National Defense Authorization Act in April. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., offered the amendment, which provides protections and exemptions to "any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society" that receives a federal defense contract.

With the full measure expected to come to the floor this week, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., has offered the amendment to remove the Russell provision, along with a handful of Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who has a transgender son, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose re-election race the Rothenberg-Gonzalez Political Report/Roll Call rates as a Toss-Up.

One of the co-sponsors, Rep. Mike Coffman, was for it before he was against it.

The Colorado Republican voted for Russell's amendment, but now Coffman is co-sponsoring an amendment to take that provision out of the bill.

Coffman's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. Coffman's district, which is based in Aurora, is one of the nation's swing districts, and the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates his re-election race as Leans Republican.

Democrats and gay rights advocates argue that the current amendment would undo President Barack Obama's 2014 executive order that banned federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The exemption is meant for religious organizations," said Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Calif. "The way this amendment is written, it doesn't matter if you are a religious organization. You could be a private contractor and this basically gives you the right to discriminate if you decide that you just don't want to do business with gay people."

But Russell countered that his amendment was about extending religious liberty protections to Defense Department contractors, since the department had not yet codified the religious protections.

"This is not what is being characterized, "Russell said during committee markup. "This rule affirms prior policy that faith based organizations are no less eligible than secular organizations to deliver federally funded services ... This is reaffirming what the president is already doing in making a level playing field."

The amendment narrowly passed the committee, 33-29, with two Republicans, Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who is running for the Senate, voting against it.