A growing number of voices are calling on President Obama to omit a religious exemption in his planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.
A trio of letters in the span of two days — one from lawmakers, one from civil rights organizations and another from law professors — make the case to Obama that including a carve-out in his upcoming directive for religious organizations would be unprecedented and leave the most vulnerable LGBT workers open to discrimination.
That stands in contrast to a group of faith leaders, including Catholic Charities USA and Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, who sent a different letter calling for an exemption in the executive order to allow religious organizations to continue to receive federal contracts while being able to discriminate against LGBT workers.
On Tuesday, a group of 34 House Democrats led by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Obama saying the executive order should be signed “as soon as possible without exemptions.”
“Creating a religious exemption for workplace discrimination would set a dangerous precedent for employees around the country. With this exemption, employers would be able to fire or refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity,” the letter states. “Your action at the federal level must put a complete stop to these unfair and discriminatory workplace practices.”
Other signers of the letter include Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
In response to a question from the Washington Blade, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday just after the letter was published that he wasn’t aware of the missive, nor did he have any updates on the executive order.
“I haven’t seen the letter so I’d hesitate to react to it, but I will tell you that the position that we still have here is that 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 a timing on which it might be announced.”
The letter does not include signatures from any of the seven openly lesbian, gay or bisexual members of the U.S. House, even though each had previously called on Obama to sign the executive order. They are each sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would bar employers from discriminating against LGBT workers, but that contains an exemption for religious organizations.
A House aide familiar with negotiations on the executive order, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the names of the openly LGB lawmakers are absent because the LGBT Equality Caucus is engaged in ongoing negotiations with the White House about the scope of the executive order. It shouldn’t be read one way or the other about their position on a religious exemption in the planned directive, the aide said.
The letter also isn’t signed by any members of House leadership, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), although members of congressional leadership generally don’t sign group letters. No Republican signed the letter.
Another letter obtained by the Washington Blade on Tuesday and signed by the more than 70 civil rights organizations also makes the case for why Obama should refrain from including a religious exemption in the upcoming executive order.
“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished values, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character,” the letter states. “It does not, however, provide organizations the right to discriminate using taxpayer dollars. 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 urges Obama to rescind President George W. Bush’s religious exemption in Executive Order 11246, which allows religiously affiliated federal contractors to discriminate on the basis of religion.
Among the signers of the letters are LGBT groups such as the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, HRC and GetEQUAL Action. Non-LGBT groups that signed the letter include the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP.
But many LGBT groups that work on LGBT rights did not sign the letter, including Freedom to Work, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the National Black Justice Coalition and the New York-based LGBT grassroots group Queer Nation.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said the absence of his organization’s name from the letter was an error and another letter should be forthcoming with the names of additional civil rights groups.
“Freedom to Work did sign onto the coalition letter to President Obama because we believe there should be no Hobby Lobby loopholes to the upcoming executive order creating LGBT protections at federal contractors,” Almeida said.
[UPDATE: A subsequent version of the letter obtained by the Blade on Thursday lists the aforementioned absent organizations, including Freedom to Work and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, but doesn't include Queer Nation.]
Andrew Miller, a member of Queer Nation, said his organization wasn’t invited to sign the missive and criticized those who would sign it, but continue to support ENDA.
“Had we been invited to sign the letter, we would first have asked the other signatories why they oppose the proposed religious exemption in Obama’s executive order yet support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which includes the exact same religious exemption,” Miller said. “Our community’s supporters and ENDA’s Congressional sponsors cannot have it both ways.”
A number of LGBT groups, including the Task Force, have pulled support from because of its religious exemption. But other groups, including HRC and Freedom to Work, continue to support the legislation, even though they say the bill’s exemption should be narrowed.
Still another letter — led by Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality and made public on Monday — urges Obama not to include a religious exemption in the executive order and was signed by 54 legal scholars.
“Indeed, the proposed exemption would be unprecedented,” the letter states. “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.”
Among the signers of the letter are Katherine Franke, director for the Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law; Martha Nussbaum, a law professor at the University of Chicago; Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Nan Hunter, a law professor at Georgetown University.