President Barack Obama is reportedly prepared to veto the critically important and wide-ranging defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2017 if the final version of the bill includes a long-standing religious exemption for faith-based contractors and religious institutions.
According to Roll Call, senior Obama administration officials said during a White House meeting on Monday that the National Defense Authorization Act, which is passed annually and lays out the budget and expenditures for the Department of Defense, could be vetoed if it lands on the president's desk with the Russell Amendment included.
The amendment, proposed by Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., provides faith-based contractors and service providers with a decades-old religious exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The exemption makes it so that the faith-based providers can't be denied federal contracts or grants due to the fact that their employment policies align with their religious convictions.
Roll Call reports that the White House has not explicitly stated that it would veto the bill if the Russell provision made into the final package, however, Obama administration officials have privately warned lawmakers about that possibility. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has also reached out to lawmakers about the issue.
Should Obama veto the bill, he would become the first president in modern history to veto the NDAA twice, according to the Daily Signal.
The threat of veto comes after Obama issued an executive order in 2014 that prohibits federal contractors from making employment decisions on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
According to Roger Severino, the director of the Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, the president's executive order left the religious exemptions in place. He added that Russell's amendment in the House version of NDAA is meant to reassure that religious-based organizations will have the right to hire people committed to living in accordance with their faith.
"Jewish day schools and Catholic adoption centers, for example, are not liable under Title VII for being authentically Jewish or Catholic, and their staffing policies shouldn't disqualify them from federal grants and contracts either," Severino wrote in an op-ed published by the Daily Signal.
"But Obama's veto threat is actually the strongest proof of why the Russell Amendment is needed," Severino added. "It shows that the president wants absolute freedom to discriminate against religious social service providers that interact with the government — all because many religious organizations won't endorse the LGBT cause. Congress should say no to the president's blatant attack on religious diversity."
Senate Democrats are also standing up against the Russell Amendment. According to Roll Call, Senate Democrats are threatening to block floor action if such a provision is included in the final version.
Forty-two Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote to leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee and urged them to make sure that the Russell Amendment is stripped from the final bill.
"If enacted, Section 1094 would vastly expand religious exemptions under the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act to allow religiously affiliated organizations receiving federal funds to engage in discriminatory hiring practices — using taxpayer dollars to harm hardworking Americans who deserve to be protected from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity, or reproductive and other healthcare decisions," the letter states.
Additionally, the letter argues that the amendment would allow potential employees to be "disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job based on an individual's religions."
Severino detests such a claim.
"Except that's not how federal contracts typically work. Existing organizations bid for contracts to produce services or products based on their ability to deliver them, not to provide somebody 'a taxpayer-funded job," Severino wrote. "The programs at issue are designed to help the needy in the most effective and efficient way possible, and faith-based organizations have proven that they are often the very best at providing these social services precisely because of their faith-based character"
Roll Call reports that there might be other reasons why Obama might veto the NDAA, such as language that might hamper Obama's ability to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.