Rather than fight President Barack Obama’s planned executive order against LGBT bias in the workplace, religious conservatives are rallying to persuade him to include an exemption for religious employers.
“We want it to be on record,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which is circulating a petition that now has 140 co-signers. “We want to give him the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Obama announced June 16 he would ban federal contractors from discriminating because of sexual orientation or gender identity. The convictions of religious business owners aside, faith-based organizations with contracts include adoption agencies, disaster relief groups, and drug and prison ministries. The order is a response to House inaction on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which the Senate passed in November. ENDA would apply to most businesses, with religious exemptions that fail to satisfy many conservatives.
But even ENDA’s exemptions—let alone those of the still-undrafted executive order—are convoluted. The looming U.S. Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby’s challenge to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate could provide some clarification. But even with a favorable decision for Hobby Lobby, an Obama order codifying LGBT conduct as equal to issues like race could affect future court decisions, Carlson-Thies told me. Motivated by that worldview, the government has a compelling interest to prevent injustice over any religious claim.
The uncertainty has conservative groups concerned. American Family Association President Tim Wildmon warned that existing civil rights orders require affirmative action for protected groups. But most conservatives are waiting to see what the order says before they take decisive action. LGBT lobbyists have told conservatives their reservations are unfounded. Fred Sainz, with the Human Rights Campaign, told the Christian Post religious liberty concerns are “premature” without seeing a draft of the order.
But a wait-and-see approach is certainly not the stance LGBT activists are taking. Interfaith Alliance President C. Welton Gaddy looked forward to “working with the president” to ensure “religion should never be legitimated as a license to discriminate.”
Despite soft-pedaling the issue to the Christian Post, Sainz made his group’s intent clear to LGBT newspaper The Washington Blade. “We believe that when taxpayer funds are being used, the federal government should prevent discrimination,” he said. “LGBT workers should be treated the same as other categories already protected by the existing executive order.” Those are race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Former President George W. Bush clarified rules for religious contractors, allowing them to hire based on their religion and mission. Obama’s order could remove the Bush exemption or encode a contradiction that leaves the courts to decide whether religion can include sexual conduct.
While LGBT activists are lobbying for the order, powerful congressional Republicans have been mostly silent. Only Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has demanded the same religious protections provided in ENDA. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had no comment for the Huffington Post. “Cultural conservatives appear to be fighting the battle without the help of elected Republicans,” the Post crowed.
That’s why some groups have decided to directly petition the White House. Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, called on the president to include ENDA-like protections. Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, asked Obama to drop the executive order altogether. In the only collective effort, Carlson-Thies is compiling signatures from faith-based organizations, pastors, and constitutional law experts to shed light on what’s at stake.
Disaster relief organization Catholic Relief Services, for example, had more than $230 million in U.S. government grants and contracts in 2013 and $350 million in 2011. The Department of Health and Human Services has already refused to contract with Catholic groups not willing to provide contraception or abortion counseling, Jesuit analyst Thomas Reese said. Funding revocations at the state level over LGBT issues have led dioceses to shutter adoption services in at least four states since 2006. “It would be really impossible to replace many of these Catholic organizations with new secular ones,” Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America told Reese.
Carlson-Thies told me Obama is waiting to hear whether he will get pushback, and conservatives should not confirm his agenda by silence: “It’s not a letter approving an executive order, but it’s just saying if there is an executive order, it should have very strong religious freedom protections.”
The letter asks for ENDA-like protections for religious organizations’ conduct and preservation of Bush’s exemption. And given the big-picture precedent the order sets, Carlson-Thies wants Obama to clarify that LGBT conduct does not trump religious freedom. “At the end of the day, we have no idea whether the president will listen—take some of our advice, none of it, a little bit of it,” Carlson-Thies said. “But I think when we have an opening to speak up, it’s incumbent on us to speak up and not let the opportunity pass by.”