President Barack Obama on Monday ignored the concerns of religious conservatives and signed an executive order adding sexuality and gender identity to a list of things federal contractors may not consider when making hiring decisions. He did not explain his decision to ignore requests for an exemption, but he told LGBT supporters at the White House he believed in the “irrefutable rightness” of their cause.
“America’s federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people,” Obama said during a signing ceremony. In a separate executive order, the president amended federal hiring policy to include a ban on considering gender identity. That policy already included sexual orientation. While few religious organizations are federal contractors, they do provide overseas relief and development programs and re-entry programs for inmates leaving federal prisons.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, called Obama’s decision “viewpoint blackmail” of those with moral objections. “Religious faith is not simply a matter of intellectual affirmation but of active practice,” Sprigg said Monday.
A key domino in the president’s decision-making process may have come July 8, when a slew of LGBT groups pulled support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) after Christian leaders asked Obama for exemptions to his order similar to those included in the stalled legislation. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision also likely played a role. Gay rights groups believe religiously affiliated employers could use the same legal basis cited in the Hobby Lobby case against LGBT workers.
ENDA would have applied across America, not just to the 24,000 federal contractors and their 28 million workers, who make up one-fifth of the U.S. workforce. But the GOP-controlled House won’t bring it to the floor for debate. Obama again used his pen and phone to bypass Congress where he could.
The president’s executive order merely amended the language of an existing policy banning discrimination by federal contractors to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Contractors must sign a statement pledging their compliance and often are called on to publicly demonstrate their devotion to nondiscrimination, even by taking affirmative action to recruit protected groups. The Department of Labor will determine those details and directives within 90 days.
Disaster relief group Catholic Relief Services had more than $230 million in U.S. government grants and contracts in 2013. 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. But The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday a federal agency asked Catholic Charities for housing help in the crisis involving immigrant children. Whether those agreements are contracts or grants wasn’t immediately clear.
LGBT activists, for now, have won the intense public dispute over whether religious groups should get an exemption. “You organized, you spoke up, you signed petitions, you sent letters—I know because I got a lot of ‘em,” Obama told supporters Monday. He failed to mention the more than 160 religious leaders who signed two letters asking for exemptions.
Gordon College President Michael Lindsay signed one of the letters, as did a broad group of Christian leaders. Not long after Gordon College lost a contract with its hometown of Salem, Mass., over Lindsay’s appeal. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges even threatened to revoke the college’s accreditation.
In signing the order, Obama left in place an exemption signed by his predecessor giving religious contractors the right to hire and fire based on religion. But he also made it clear LGBT conduct trumps religious freedom. The extent to which that becomes the next battleground over conscience will be determined by the precedent Obama sets, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.