White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Thursday the administration continues to back a discharge petition to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but wouldn’t articulate whether President Obama supports a narrowed religious exemption for the bill.
Under questioning from the Washington Blade about the discharge petition filed Wednesday by House Democrats, Earnest said the White House continues to support efforts to pass federal legislation to bar employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I can tell you the President has long supported inclusive federal legislation to address employment discrimination against LGBT Americans, and we continue to believe that Congress needs to act,” Earnest said. “We welcome efforts to move this issue forward and will work with lawmakers and advocates to achieve this important goal.”
Notably, Earnest never referred to ENDA by name and instead talked vaguely about federal legislation. Some LGBT groups have dropped support for ENDA because the bill’s protections are limited to employment and because of controversy over its religious exemption.
White House support for an ENDA discharge petition isn’t new. In March, facing pressure for continuing to withhold an executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors, the White House backed a discharge petition as a means to move ENDA forward. Obama has since signed the executive order.
But the White House hasn’t taken a position on the appropriate scope of the religious exemption. The discharge petition would bring to the House floor a version of ENDA with a narrower religious carve-out along the lines of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is different from the more expansive exemption in the bill passed by the Senate last year.
Asked about the religious exemption in ENDA, Earnest said the administration is engaged in talks on the issue and won’t comment.
“I do know that this is the subject of ongoing conversations between White House officials, senior administration officials and interested members of Congress who’ve been focused on these issues,” Earnest said. “So, I don’t want to characterize those conversations at this point, but this is, generally speaking, a value that the president supports and encourages Congress to act on.”
Just before the Senate passed its version of ENDA, the White House left the issue of religious exemption up to Congress, saying lawmakers could find the right balance. But that was before blow-up earlier this year when pro-LGBT groups, including the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union, dropped support for ENDA because they felt the religious exemption was too broad.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will spend political capital to call on lawmakers to sign the discharge petition. Earnest was non-committal, but saw the possibility of such talks in the future.
“I don’t have calls to read out from the President at this point, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out conversations along those lines,” Earnest said.