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Rep. Stephen Russell: Support Religious Freedom Against LGBT Lobby

Congress should pass appropriations bills that don’t restrict legal rights for Americans, says the Oklahoma congressman who is now leading the fight to protect religious freedom from a coalition of liberal Republican and Democratic legislators. 

“My hope would be that we could run clean appropriations,” said Rep. Stephen Russell (R.-Okla.). “My efforts have been about protecting the 1st Amendment and the free exercise of religion” from legislators who would restrict religious rights to favor sexual minorities, he said. 

This year, Democrats — and some Republicans — are trying to raise the legal status of transgenderism in American law. Their goal is to pressure Americans to accept the idea that any man or women can choose the “gender identity” of the opposite sex. That push has sparked fights this year over bathroom privacy in North Carolina, and also in K-12 schools around the nation. 

Russell passed his own amendment April 28 to the House’s version of the Pentagon budget, effectively shielding federal contractors — who include religious corporations, religious associations, religious educational institutions, and religious societies — from Obama’s Executive Order 13672. The executive order effectively forces contractors to comply with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA, which has been repeatedly defeated by Congress. 

The congressman said his April amendment sets federal government policy in line with the language in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. “What the amendment does do is prevent discrimination based on religious free exercise for narrow specific groups,” said Russell, who led the 2013 search and capture of Saddam Hussein.

Those protected would have included faith-based groups with a contract to provide social services or a part-time chaplain contracted to minister to troops.

“Over 200 of us [legislators] felt that a serious assault is being perpetrated on the free exercise of religion, particularly since the religious liberty amendment in the defense authorization merely codified exceptions under current law and did not prevent anyone from being able to contract,” Russell said.

But the LGBT coalition is pushing hard for its goals. When the Veterans Affairs budget came up on the House floor May 18, Rep. Sean Maloney (D.-N.Y.) filed his own amendment that would have banned federal contractors from making employment decisions based on gender lifestyle or sexual orientation.

Maloney is one of a handful of homosexuals serving in Congress and he was joined by upwards of 35 Republicans voting for his amendment, which appeared to pass. The House Republican leadership realized what was happening, and the presiding officer Rep. Doug Collins (R.-Ga.) did not gavel the vote closed until enough Republicans changed their votes.

Maloney was not done. The next big must-pass bill on the House floor was the $37.4 billion appropriation for water projects, green energy subsidies, and other programs, such as upgrades to security to nuclear power facilities. Maloney filed his pro-LGBT amendment again.

This time, just before 11 p.m May 25, his amendment was added to the fund bill because 43 Republicans joined Maloney, including key allies of Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.). The supporters included powerful members of Ryan’s House Republican Steering Committee, plus Rep. Greg Walden (R.-Oregon), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC is the influential committee that raises campaign funds for House Republicans.

The first time Maloney had gone after the Russell Amendment, he lost 212 to 213. But in this second attempt, he won 233 to 186—when there was no effort by the House Republican leadership to beat it back.

So Russell and his supporters pushed back in a meeting the next morning of GOP legislators. After their show of strength, Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) and the Republican leadership temporarily dropped the bill amid the torrent of criticism from the conservatives.

Russell said there is a feeling inside the GOP House Conference that whenever there is a need for someone to back off, it is the conservatives who have to take the dive. “While we respect the districts of all our members, many were disappointed that accommodation seems to only be one way.”

Russell said it is possible to save the appropriations process for fiscal year 2017. “The GOP and Democrats could make that possible if we drew a truce that neither side load up language like Mr. Maloney ran on the E&W bill,” he said. “This [funding bill] has never been about that fight,” the retired lieutenant colonel said.

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