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Byrne Defends Russell Amendment: Speaks on Religious Freedom

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R from Montrose) spoke out in support of efforts to ensure religious freedom protections for faith-based organizations and businesses. House Republicans recently added a religious freedom amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which passed the House on May 18.

Congressman Byrne said, “Mr. Speaker, two weeks ago, the gentleman from Oklahoma, Mr. Russell, offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act regarding religious freedom. Many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have attempted to use this amendment as a wedge in an effort to divide the American people. I want to take a minute to discuss the true facts about its impact.”

Rep. Byrne said that in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, “The first two clauses address religious freedom. The first prohibits an ‘establishment’ of religion, so that citizens would not be forced to support a national church as was the case in Great Britain. The second clause prohibits any government act that inhibits the ‘free exercise’ of religion by a citizen, thereby assuring that the government cannot dictate religious beliefs or interfere with citizens as they practice and live out their faith.”

Rep. Byrne said, “Historically, we have a proud tradition of Republicans and Democrats working together to protect Free Exercise under the First Amendment. A great example of this is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed the House by voice vote in 1993. Unfortunately, basic principles of free exercise are under attack today. In response, Mr. Russell’s limited amendment would extend religious liberty protection to four categories of government contractors.”

Rep. Byrne said, t is important to note that one doesn’t lose Constitutional rights if he or she seeks to become a contractor of the government. Hence, contractors are protected in the ‘free exercise’ of their religious beliefs and practices. The Russell amendment makes explicit these contractors’ rights to such protection in the employment of people who work for them.” The Russell amendment states: ‘Any branch or agency of the Federal Government shall, with respect to any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society that is a recipient of or offeror for a Federal government contract, subcontract, grant, purchase order, or cooperative agreement, provide protections and exemptions consistent with Sections 702(a) and 702(e)(2) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . and section 103(d) of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.’”

Rep. Byrne said, “The Russell Amendment extends to these four categories of religious entities when they are working for, or when they attempt to do work for, the government, the same religious liberty rights they have had for over 50 years when operating in the private sector. This approach is neither new nor novel.” The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extends many of the same rights granted under the 1964 Act to people with disabilities. Section 103(d) allows the four categories of religious entities to give ‘preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion’ and to require that ‘all applicants and employees conform to the religious tenets of such organization.’” “The Russell amendment extends to these four categories of religious entities the same religious liberty rights they have had for over 25 years when operating in the private sector to when they seek to do business with the government.”

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Rep. Byrne said, “The opponents of the Russell Amendment say it provides for discrimination against the LGBT community. A simple review of the Amendment and the underlying Federal statutes demonstrates an absence of any reference to LGBT persons.” “Indeed, the Russell Amendment is narrowly drawn to apply only to the four categories of religious entities in their employment of individuals to carry on their work. Any service or product produced by such an entity in a government contract would have to be provided to whomever the government requires and that obviously, and appropriately, will include those in the LGBT community.”

Rep. Byrne said, “if the Russell Amendment is discriminatory then so is the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” “If allowing a religious entity to employ persons who share its beliefs is discriminatory than the First Congress, the heavily Democratic Congress of 1964 and the Democratic controlled Congresses of 1990 and 1993, as well as Presidents George Washington, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, were all supportive of discrimination.”

Rep. Byrne concluded, “It is certainly fair to debate the law of our country as it applies to LGBT people, and their status under the law has undergone rapid change in the last 15 years. But it is inaccurate to portray the Russell Amendment as anything other than a narrowly drawn effort to protect religious freedom.”

Byrne’s speech followed intense debate in the House of Representatives last week on an amendment by Congressman Steve Russell (R from Oklahoma) that would ensure religious freedom protections for religious corporations, religious associations, religious educational institutions, and religious societies. The Russell Amendment applied only to those four categories of religious entities.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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