The Death (and coming resurrection) of the Russell Amendment

In 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13672, which effectually restricts chaplains’ (and other federal contractors) ability to hire based on religious denominational criteria, and stipulates that employers cannot consider sexual orientation in the hiring process. The executive order’s language is highly vague and will be left to the interpretation of the courts, implying a tooth-and-nail fight for anyone who may fall under the order’s reach.

While the order currently only applies to organizations receiving federal grants, it sets a dangerous precedent for denying any type of faith-based hiring. It is no wonder, then, why the Russell Amendment has been such a hot topic for anyone who hires based on faith.

Further, it has been noted that the entities most affected by these executive orders are generally unwilling to voice their displeasure in the actions of the Obama Administration, as they are heavily reliant on federal funding. Without their backing, fighting for the Russell Amendment became more difficult.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Russell Amendment - proposed by its namesake, Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma - sought to clarify and expand the religious exemption. This is good news for anyone who hires based on religion.

Not so fast, though. The Amendment was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Why would a religious freedom protection be in a defense bill?  Because in the era of gridlock, the NDAA is a must-pass bill. It’s a spending bill that has passed for an unprecedented fifty years in a row. Yes, fifty. Once the President threatened to veto this nigh-unstoppable bill due to the inclusion of the Russell Amendment, however, the amendment died in the Senate - shortly before votes were called.

Needless to say, many faith-based organizations were, and still are, up in arms. The Russell Amendment was the first real shot at legislation counteracting the White House’s aim, and the Republican-controlled legislature dropped the ball. So now what?

Some religious freedom advocates are positing that legislators were wise to exclude such controversial legislation from the NDAA and risk a veto, when the same results are expected to be accomplished soon in a Trump Administration.

Rumor has it that the president-elect is willing to sign legislation into effect that would roll back executive orders that have been harmful to religious hiring in the past few years. 

In the end, the provisions of the Russell Amendment would be a great win for those (like Accord) advocating for your right to hire based on religion. Whether this change will come in the form of a Trump executive order, or from a bill in the new Congress remains to be seen, but it is important to stay informed, and to keep your representatives informed of your views.