Metro Weekly

Obama urged to exclude religious exemption from LGBT nondiscrimination order

Photo: Barack Obama. Credit:  Christopher Dilts/Obama for America.

Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Christopher Dilts/Obama for America.

The White House is facing a barrage of requests not to include a religious exemption in an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination.

In a series of letters sent by members of Congress, civil rights leaders, LGBT-rights advocates and legal scholars, President Barack Obama has been urged to resist calls from faith leaders to include a religious exemption similar to that in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in a forthcoming LGBT nondiscrimination order.

In a July 15 letter to Obama, more than 50 leading attorneys and law professors wrote that including such an exemption in an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity would be unprecedented.

“Including such a provision in newly expanded rights for LGBT employees of federal contractors would at once undermine workplace equity for LGBT employees, relegate LGBT protections to a lesser status than existing prohibitions against discrimination, and allow religious employers to create or maintain discriminatory workplaces with substantial public funding,” the letter states.

One day later, more than 30 members of Congress attached their names to a July 15 letter to President Obama also urging him not to include a religious exemption in the expected executive order. 

“Creating a religious exemption for workplace discrimination would set a dangerous precedent for employees around the country,” the letter states. “With this exemption, employers would be able to frre or refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Your action at the federal level must put a complete stop to these unfair and discriminatory worþlace practices.”

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) led the letter and said including a religious exemption would set a “dangerous precedent.” Although the letter was signed by civil rights leaders such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), none of the seven out members of the House of Representatives, nor the key proponents of ENDA in the House, attached their names to the letter.

In another July 15 letter first reported by BuzzFeed, nearly 70 civil rights organizations also called on Obama to resist demands to include a religious exemption in the forthcoming executive order. 

“When a religiously affiliated organization makes the decision to request a taxpayer-funded contract with the federal government, it must play by the same rules as every other federal contractor,” the letter states, which was signed by groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP as well as LGBT groups who have been divided over the religious exemption in ENDA, including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Transgender Equality.

The letter also calls on Obama to rescind an exemption to Executive Order 11246, created by President George W. Bush in Executive Order 13279, which permits religiously affiliated organizations that receive government contracts to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

“If an organization requests and receives government funding, it should not be allowed to discriminate against qualified job applicants based on who they are or what their religious beliefs may be,” the letter states. “Yet, exempting religiously affiliated organizations that contract with the federal government from prohibitions on discrimination by federal contractors would do just that.”

The latest influx of pressure on the White House not to include a religious exemption in the executive order pertaining to federal contractors comes as debate continues over the scope of ENDA’s religious exemption. Several major LGBT-rights groups have pulled their support for ENDA over the scope of the religious exemption, while Republican backers of ENDA have stood by the bill as written.  

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest provided no updates on the timing nor the content of the executive order for federal contractors, which was first announced by the White House a month ago on June 16.

“The president has directed his team to draw up an executive order for his consideration,” Earnest said. “They’re working on something along those lines and I’m not in a position to talk about either the content of that possible executive order or the timing of which it might be announced.”

LGBT Executive Order Letter From Legal Scholars

LGBT Executive Order Letter From Congress

LGBT Executive Order Letter From Civil Rights Groups

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.