June 25, 2014 at 8:50 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Earnest won’t rule out religious exemption in LGBT exec order
Josh Earnest, White House, Barack Obama Administration, press, gay news, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest won’t rule out the possibility of a religious exemption being included in a planned LGBT non-discrimination executive order. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a religious exemption would be included in a planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.

“Unfortunately, I’m not in a position from here to give you any insight about the content of what an executive order like this might include,” Earnest said. “But this is something that the president’s team is drafting, and once they have finished the drafting of that and are ready for the president to sign it, we’ll be able to talk to you in a little more detail about what actually included in there, and what the consequences are for the president’s signature.”

Earnest declined to elaborate when asked a follow-up question about whether the White House is awaiting an imminent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby before settling on the final details of the executive order.

“It’s my understanding that there’s an ongoing process as it relates to the drafting of an executive order that would take the kinds of steps the president talked about quite a bit,” Earnest said. “But, at this point, I don’t have any update for you in terms of the content or the timing of that executive order.”

Observers have speculated the Hobby Lobby case, which will determine whether employers may qualify for a religious exemption under Obamacare, may have an impact on the executive order. If the Supreme Court issues a broad exemption, the White House may feel compelled to include a religious exemption within the directive to comply with the court order.

LGBT advocates, including from GetEQUAL, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, have insisted that no religious exemption be included in the executive order or that an LGBT directive should be along the lines of the protections afforded to other groups under Executive Order 11246.

But one fan of including a religious exemption in the executive order is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). After the White House announced plans for the order, Hatch said the directive should include a broad exemption like the one found in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because the legislation “strikes a good balance.” Hatch was among the 10 Republicans who voted for ENDA on the Senate floor.

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said in reaction to Earnest on the executive order that the inclusion of a religious exemption would be “simply unthinkable.”

“Similar to the message that a broad religious exemption in ENDA sends — that discrimination against LGBTQ people is somehow acceptable and understandable — religious exemptions in an executive order would cement second-class status for LGBTQ Americans,” Cronk said. “The choice here is clear — either the president believes we should be equal under the law or he doesn’t. I don’t see any gray area here.”

The Blade also followed up with a question on why the White House was announcing an executive order at this time when it could have acted anytime over the course of the administration. Before Earnest could answer, a White House intern in the briefing room fainted, prompting the spokesperson to terminate the briefing as she arose and said she was unharmed.

Earnest already addressed the issue of timing for the executive order during a gaggle on Air Force One just after the news broke that Obama would move ahead with the directive, saying it resulted from inaction on the part of the Republican-controlled House.

“Last year we did see the Senate pass the so-called ENDA legislation,” Earnest said. “We have for several months now been encouraging the House to take up and pass that legislation. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of Republicans blocking progress on the kind of issue that has pretty strong support all across the country.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • El Dorado

    What is the extent of a religious exemption? If it’s limited to religious institutions and organizations such as Liberty University or The Family Research Council, then what does it matter? Why would you want to work in such places anyway when you have secular alternatives and such organizations have a primary objective of destroying you. I believe some compromise in these areas is fair and shows balance. We don’t want them ramming their anti-gay agenda down our throats, why should we ram it down theirs. This only provides an excuse for congressmen and women to waffle on the issue and hide behind the religious liberty excuse not to support the legislation. You can lose sponsors you already have.

    However, I am absolutely against people invoking religious exemptions in a secular business, and the federal, state and local governments in employment. Then indeed such legislation is useless as anyone can use that excuse to exclude GBLT people. There has to be a clear distinction and line drawn. Exxon and Chick-Fil-A are good examples.

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