Faith Groups Push For “Robust Exemption” to Obama Anti-Discrimination Order

Citing both pragmatic issues and fundamental differences of opinion, a number of religious groups have asked the Obama administration to keep their rights in mind when crafting an executive order barring discrimination against gays by federal contractors. LGBT groups, on the other hand, say the order shouldn't be diluted.

Citing both pragmatic issues and fundamental differences of opinion, several religious groups have asked the Obama administration to keep their rights in mind when crafting an executive order barring discrimination against gays and lesbians by federal contractors. LGBT groups say the order shouldn’t be diluted.

A proposed executive order that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT employees working for government contractors comes with a controversial question heightened by last month’s Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision: Will the order contain a religious exemption?

President Obama, who was said to have been working on the order last month, has remained mum on the issue. But a number of religious leaders and organizations have asked the president to add an exemption, citing the need to protect religious freedom.

The appeals show a range of approaches to the issue.

An Emotional Appeal

The approach: One letter, sent shortly after the Hobby Lobby ruling, actually has ties to the administration: Michael Wear, who worked with Obama’s 2012 campaign on faith outreach issues, organized the letter, focusing on balancing gay rights with respect for religious concerns. “We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need,” the letter states [PDF].

Who signed on? Wear gathered responses from leaders of several religious groups, including the Christian Community Development Association, World Relief, the Center for Public Justice, and Catholic Charities USA.

The biggest name: Dr. Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, also signed the letter. Warren drew controversy—specifically related to statements he made about homosexuality—before Obama’s 2009 inauguration, where he gave the invocation.

A Pragmatic Appeal

The approach: A second letter, sent last month by the National Association of Evangelicals, made a similar appeal to the president but spoke to legal precedent on the issue. “Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court, religious organizations are free to consider religion when deciding who is most qualified to join their respective staffs,” the letter says [PDF]. “They are free under Title VII to maintain a conduct standard that reflects their religions’ sincerely held beliefs, which include deep convictions about human sexuality.”

Who signed on? NAE’s letter, signed by dozens of religious leaders of groups including the Association of Reformed Colleges and Universities and the California Association of Evangelicals, also noted the numerous collaborations that religious organizations have with the federal government. These include relief efforts, agreements with the federal prison system, and contracts with federal agencies.

The biggest name: Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has been a longstanding critic of homosexuality, stirring up controversy this year for his support of Russian anti-gay legislation.

The Other Side

LGBT organizations urged the president not to dilute the anti-discrimination protections in the order by including a religious exemption.

“There is unanimity among every LGBT group that no new religious exemptions will be tolerated. Taxpayers dollars should not be used to discriminate,” Fred Sainz, vice president for communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), told The Washington Post.

The religious exemption issue is a wedge for gay rights groups: This week, multiple LGBT organizations pulled their support from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, citing the bill’s broad exemptions for religious groups. HRC, however, said it would continue to support the bill.

Rick Warren is among the religious leaders pushing for an exception to the executive order. (photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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