WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve Russell was disappointed that his religious freedom amendment was stripped from a federal defense-spending bill the House passed on Friday. But the Oklahoma Republican is encouraged he will prevail in the long-term, telling BuzzFeed News that the incoming Trump administration has given him “very good assurances” it would address the issue upon taking office.
“These issues will be resolved, and we have gotten some very good assurances moving forward,” Russell said at the Capitol, suggesting Trump could take executive action without waiting for Congress. “I am certainly encouraged by the signs that I am getting from the administration that is inbound.”
Russell said he has "gotten very positive signals” that Trump team would step in where his amendment was blocked, but added that he was not going "to talk strategy or predispose what the executive branch may do," specifically, on the matter.
Dubbed the Russell Amendment, Russell's religious freedom legislation became a lightning rod this year for Democrats, who said it would let religiously affiliated federal contractors discriminate against LGBT people.
They argued Russell crafted the measure to undermine President Obama’s 2014 executive order that banned LGBT discrimination by federal contractors.
In an interview, Russell did not deny that Obama’s LGBT order was his target, arguing the order threatened contracts for Catholic organizations and other religiously affiliated groups.
“The vagueness was created by the executive branch, so the executive branch [under Trump] could un-create the vagueness," he said. "You reverse it by clarifying a bad executive order with a good one."
The Russell Amendment would have ensured religious tenets would not be an impediment to federal contracts for religious corporations, religious associations, religious educational institutions, or religious societies.
LGBT advocates worried it would permit corporations that make even a superficial claim of religious belief to discriminate against LGBT people within the company, or to deny services to customers, while still receiving taxpayer money.
Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democratic member on the House Armed Services Committee, was on a conference committee of four lawmakers who stripped the Russell Amendment from the the defense funding bill. The committee's two Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, were not necessarily opposed to the amendment, he said, but saw an opening in the future.
"The were confident they would have a better environment for a variety of different issues in the new administration," Smith told BuzzFeed News. "It worries me a great deal."
McCain declined to comment on why the Russell Amendment was stripped from the National Defense Authorization Act in an interview with BuzzFeed News, but he said he was open to similar legislation in the future.
“As a general outlook, I think those religious-based organizations should be allowed to make decisions that are in keeping with their religious beliefs,” the Arizona Republican said.
As BuzzFeed News reported in October, LGBT advocates have been worried that Trump could reverse LGBT rights in several ways upon taking office, including rescinding Obama’s 2014 order or expanding on a 2002 order by president George W. Bush to protect the religious rights of religious social service groups.
Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request to comment on whether it has given assurances to expand the religious freedom rights of federal contractors.
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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