In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, a group of faith leaders is seeking a religious exemption to President Obama’s planned executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual preference.
At a Pride celebration at the White House in mid-June, Obama announced he will sign an executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees of companies who contract with the federal government. Those companies would not be able to fire or avoid hiring someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The letter, sent to the White House on Tuesday, asks for religious exemptions to be included in the executive order. It is an attempt to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which was handed down on Monday and says that the government must show deference to the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of a “closely held company.” This is despite the fact that the court ruled that its decision would not leave room for companies to justify discriminatory practices under the guise of religious belief.
"We have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you. With respect to the proposed executive order, we agree that banning discrimination is a good thing. We believe that all persons are created in the divine image of the creator, and are worthy of respect and love, without exception,” the letter states.
“Even so, it still may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue. That is why 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."
Many of the letter’s signatories are close to the Obama administration. The letter was spearheaded by Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for the president's 2012 campaign.
"This is not an antagonistic letter by any means," Wear told The Atlantic. But in the wake of Hobby Lobby, he said, "the administration does have a decision to make whether they want to recalibrate their approach to some of these issues."
Obama proposed the executive order for government contracting companies in lieu of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was passed by the Senate, but hasn’t been taken up by the House. Twenty-nine states in the US currently offer no legal protection for LGBT individuals in the workplace. The ENDA does include a religious exemption for a wide array of faith-based organizations, including churches, religious-service groups and religious newspapers.
“Our concern about an executive order without a religious exemption is about more than the direct financial impact on religious organizations. While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality,” the letter said. “We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability. There is no perfect solution that will make all parties completely happy.”
One of the leaders who signed the letter, Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University, told The Atlantic that the administration must balance religious freedom with gay rights, and that the faith community just wants to make sure that its concerns are heard.
"I am a very strong supporter of LGBT rights, and I am really excited about the prospect of extending provisions against discrimination in federal contracts,” Schneck, a onetime co-chair of Catholics for Obama, said. “But I am also aware that this is an issue that provokes real differences among some of the most important religious organization on the front lines of providing care for the poorest and most vulnerable."
Republican Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah, was one of ten GOP members to vote for the ENDA. He would like the same religious protections that the act provided in Obama’s executive order.
“ENDA strikes a good balance to ensure that discrimination based on sexual orientation will not be tolerated, but also that one of our nation’s fundamental freedoms — religious freedom — is still upheld,” he said in a statement to the Washington Blade. “The same must be said for any Obama Administration initiative on this issue.”
But LGBT advocates think the religious exemptions are too broad. Both the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center withdrew support for the ENDA, according to the Blade.
The administration has not yet released the order’s language, nor have they said when it will be signed.