Russell amendment – NDAA & How Trump Can Help Religious Charities

WSJ opinion – How Trump Can Help Religious Charities

Adopting the Russell amendment would be a quick win for the new administration.

The House is scheduled to vote Friday on the National Defense Authorization Act. This legislation is passed annually to set the military’s budget and settle other policy issues. A significant hangup had been Democratic opposition to a provision known as the “Russell amendment,” which would have clarified conscience protections for religious groups that receive federal contracts. The amendment is named after Rep. Steve Russell (R., Okla.), who offered the amendment at the House Armed Services Committee.

Forty-two Democratic senators signed an Oct. 25 letter opposing the Russell amendment. They claim it would have authorized bigotry by allowing religiously affiliated contractors to “engage in discriminatory hiring practices” or even to fire employees for using birth control or in vitro fertilization. These accusations are grossly inaccurate, but they led to the amendment’s removal from the final bill. The U.S. now risks losing the crucial work religious service providers do for communities with the support of federal contracts.

Every day, stories of grace and mercy are being written as people of faith help those in need. Catholic Charities has helped single moms fill their basic needs. The Mormon Church, through LDS Charities, has donated wheelchairs to hundreds of thousands of people. The University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic in Los Angeles provides care for thousands of people in a desperate part of town. The Jewish Social Service Agency supports families of children with autism. Samaritans Purse provides disaster relief across the world.

These groups are being marginalized by the federal government. What happened?

In 2014 President Obama issued an executive order providing hiring protections for the LGBT community in federal contracting. This kept in place a religious hiring exemption that parallels existing federal law, but soon after the order was issued administration officials said the exemption would be interpreted so narrowly as to render it useless.

Religious organizations could not be sure exactly what the law required of them. The Russell amendment would have made clear that these groups can hire employees who align with the teachings of the organization. This is a basic right of faith-based groups with longstanding precedent in federal statutes like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This uncertainty is leading many religious charities with long histories of working with the federal government to consider no longer doing so.

The work these groups do matters. Religious organizations contribute $1.2 trillion annually to American society—more than Apple, Google and Amazon combined—according to a study published this year in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. America’s faith communities feed the poor, support immigrants, assist people suffering from HIV and AIDS, fight pollution, counsel families and provide countless other services.

Forty percent of the 50 largest charities in the U.S. are faith-based. Many are household names: the Salvation Army, World Vision, Compassion International, Feed the Children. Such organizations are motivated to serve others because faith calls them to affirm basic human dignity and serve people in need. These are the kinds of groups being accused of bigotry.

Many of these charities contract with the federal government. They win these bids because they are the most efficient and effective providers. Sometimes they’re the only providers.

Earlier this year, the White House lauded the invaluable role of religious groups in serving the poor and underprivileged through federal contracts and grants. The Obama administration further affirmed the right of such providers to compete equally for funding with secular organizations while still retaining their religious identity. It specifically rejected calls to ban federal funds from going to faith-based providers.

The Obama administration understands that religious charities serve with integrity and excellence. So why did the White House and its allies in Congress work so hard to kill religious-liberty protections, and why did Republicans allow them to do so?

The Russell amendment would have protected what the Obama administration said should be protected. And it would not have overturned the protections for the LGBT community in the president’s 2014 executive order. These safeguards could have survived, and thrived, side by side.

Because Congress was unwilling to enact this language, addressing the ambiguity in the 2014 executive order now falls to President-elect Trump and the next Congress. The country’s new leadership must make a choice: Will it support civil-rights protections that have existed for more than half a century and enable religious organizations to serve the most vulnerable in our communities? Or will it place those vital services in jeopardy for political expediency?

Let religious charities do what they do best, and what few others do better. Let them serve.

Mr. Hatch is the senior U.S. senator from Utah.

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