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U.S. House leaders skirt mini 'religious liberty' floor fight, for now


Updated at 10:30 a.m.: 

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet again this afternoon to vet more amendments for the defense policy bill, and the "religious liberty" provision will be among those considered. We'll update when we hear whether the provision has been approved for a vote on the House floor.

Original post: 

GOP leaders in the U.S. House maneuvered to avoid a public floor fight over federal "religious liberty" language Monday evening, weeks after Georgia’s most recent chapter ended with a bang.

Lawmakers on the House Rules Committee, the powerful panel that controls the House floor, did not allow for a vote on a proposed amendment from a bipartisan group of lawmakers -- including a handful of moderate Republicans -- that would have stripped out a "religious liberty" provision from an annual defense policy bill the House will vote on this week.

The "religious liberty" language in question would provide "protections and exemptions" for federal contractors “with respect to any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society.” Added by by Oklahoma Republican Steve Russell, R-Okla., a retired Army lieutenant colonel who trained at Fort Benning, the language would apply to all federal contractors, not just those that serve the defense sector, according to Roll Call.

Moderate Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent was leading the charge against the provision.

Here's more background from Roll Call: 

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 Democrat Adam Smith of Washington "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."

Supporters have said the provision is necessary since the Pentagon has yet to codify "religious liberty" protections for contractors.

"This is not what is being characterized," said Russell, according to Roll Call. "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."


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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.