Faith groups press Obama for gay discrimination exemptions

  • Article by: JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and ERIK ECKHOLM , New York Times
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 5:52 PM

He doesn’t want to offend gay rights or religious groups.

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President Barack Obama

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– After a setback in the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case, President Obama is facing mounting pressure from religious groups demanding to be excluded from his long-promised executive order that would bar discrimination against gays and lesbians by companies that do government work.

The president has yet to sign the executive order, but last week a group of major faith organizations, including some of Obama’s allies, said he should consider adding an exemption for groups whose religious beliefs oppose homosexuality. In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that family-run corporations with religious objections could be exempted from providing employees with insurance coverage for contraception.

The demands of the faith organizations pose a dilemma for Obama, who has struggled to preserve freedom of expression among religious groups while supporting the rights of gays and lesbians. Obama could unleash a conservative uproar if he is seen as intruding on religious beliefs, but many of his supporters would be bitterly disappointed if he appeared to grant any leeway to anti-gay discrimination.

The White House has given no reason for the delay.

In a July 1 letter to Obama sent the day after Hobby Lobby was decided, the religious leaders wrote that “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 effort behind the letter was organized by Michael Wear, who worked in the White House faith-based initiative during Obama’s first term and directed the president’s faith outreach in the 2012 campaign. The letter, which called for a “robust religious exemption” in the planned executive order, was also signed by the chief executive of Catholic Charities USA; Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration; and the president of World Relief, an aid group affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals.

Rationale understandable

Wear, who calls himself an “ardent supporter” of the president and a backer of gay rights, said Tuesday that the rationale of the organizations was to maintain the rights they have. “We’re not trying to support crazy claims of religious privilege,” he said.

He described the letter as a request from “friends of the administration” to insure that the executive order provides “robust” protection of religious service organizations that uphold religious-based moral standards for their staffs, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. As an example, faith leaders said that a Catholic charity group that believes sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin should not be denied government funding because it refused to employ a leader who was openly gay.

Gay rights groups countered that it would be unacceptable to allow religious organizations receiving taxpayer dollars to refuse to hire employees simply because they are gay, and said that they did not expect the White House to provide such an exclusion. On Tuesday they stepped up their calls for Obama to quickly finalize and sign the order.

“Activists have every expectation that this executive order will be issued without any further religious exemption,” Fred Sainz, vice president for communications and marketing at the Human Rights Campaign, said in an interview.

The July 1 letter follows one on June 25 that was signed by more than 150 conservative religious groups and leaders, including many major evangelical associations. That letter warned the president that “any executive order that does not fully protect religious freedom will face widespread opposition and will further fragment our nation.”

Protecting moral standards

The groups said that many groups doing vital work for the federal government in overseas relief, prisons and technical aid maintain religious-based “employee moral conduct standards” that could be affected by LGBT protections.

In June, Obama promised to soon sign the executive order, which would bar federal contractors from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He said he was acting on his own because a drive in Congress for a national anti-bias law to cover nearly all employers, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, had stalled.

Many states have nondiscrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers, but the presidential order would extend anti-bias rules to companies and service agencies that receive federal contracts in the 29 states that do not have such laws.

The order would protect an additional 14 million workers, according to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles Law School. It would apply to companies that do business with the federal government, including large U.S. employers like Exxon Mobil and Dell Inc., as well as religious universities and charities with federal contracts.

Federal employees already have the protections under an executive order issued in 1998 by former President Bill Clinton.

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