June 12, 2014 at 5:47 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
State LGBT groups split on ENDA’s religious exemption
GetEQUAL, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, gay news, Washington Blade, religious exemptions

State LGBT groups are split on support for ENDA and its religious exemption. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A number of statewide LGBT groups this week expressed concerns about the religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Four groups — FreedomOhio, Equality New Mexico, the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Wyoming Equality — now say they won’t support the bill with the current exemption.

Amber Royster, executive director for Equality New Mexico, said her organization won’t support the version of ENDA pending before Congress with the current religious exemption.

“We do not support the proposed religious exemption,” Royster said. “Thus, we do not support the current version of ENDA. We hope our elected officials will see this religious exemption for what it is — a license to discriminate against LGBT people — and decide to remove it.”

Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, also expressed concerns about the religious exemption and called more conversations about it. The organization wouldn’t outright say it no longer supports the version of ENDA pending before Congress.

“When we move to a place where a religious body can freely discriminate against a staff person in a non-ministerial/non-religious position — a janitor or groundskeeper, for instance — that is problematic,” Red Wing said. “Other protected classes do not have this added burden. One Iowa feels there needs to be more conversation around the nuances and the potential harm of this exemption.”

The Washington Blade polled more than 50 state LGBT groups this week on their position regarding ENDA with its current religious exemption. The language would continue to allow religious institutions, like churches or religious hospitals and schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers in ministerial and non-ministerial positions even if the bill were to become law.

The religious exemption in ENDA is broader than similar exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for categories of race, gender, religion and national origin.

The most common response from statewide LGBT groups — including Equality Illinois and Equality California — was that they continue to support ENDA, but oppose or have concerns about the bill’s religious exemption.

Including Equality Illinois and Equality California, 15 groups shared that view, including: Equality Alabama, Equality Florida, Equality Hawaii, Gender Rights Maryland, MassEquality, Outfront Minnesota, Equality Missouri, the New York-based Empire State Pride Agenda, Equality North Carolina, Basic Rights Oregon, the Tennessee Equality Project, the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and the D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance.

Dana Beyer, who heads Gender Rights Maryland, noted current political realities in Congress when explaining her organization’s position in support of the legislation.

“We support the current ENDA,” Beyer said. “We also welcome the efforts being made to revise and narrow the exemptions, and hope that those efforts make it more likely that the House will pass the bill that has already passed the Senate. In an ideal world we’d have the same religious exemptions as Title VII, but it’s, unfortunately, no longer 1964.”

Four groups — FreedomOhio, Equality New Mexico, the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Wyoming Equality — said they won’t support ENDA with the current religious exemption in place, while three others — Equality Delaware, the Kentucky-based Fairness Campaign, One Iowa, and the Missouri-based PROMO — didn’t offer an official position on ENDA, but expressed concerns about the bill’s religious exemption.

A total of 11 groups had no comment or no immediate comment on ENDA: One Colorado, the Louisiana-based Forum for Equality, Equality Maryland, Equality Michigan, Equality Ohio, Equality Pennsylvania, South Carolina Equality, Equality Virginia, Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, Fair Wisconsin and Fairness West Virginia.

Groups that didn’t respond altogether were Alaskans Together for Equality, Equality Arizona, Georgia Equality, Indiana Equality, Equality Maine, Garden State Equality, the Oklahoma-based Equality Network, Equality South Dakota, Equality Texas, Equality Utah and Equal Rights Washington.

A number of national LGBT groups — including the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Work, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Lambda Legal — have said they continue to support ENDA because of the LGBT non-discrimination protections it affords despite any concerns about the religious exemption. But two legal groups — the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center — have dropped support for the bill altogether.

Many of these state equality groups are dependent on or have affiliations with national LGBT groups that are continuing to push for passage of the current version of ENDA. For example, the Human Rights Campaign is partnering with Equality Alabama as part of its $8.5 million, three-year investment in the Project One America initiative in the South.

Additionally, Beyer was named chair of the advisory board for Freedom to Work, a national group pursuing passage of ENDA in Congress that has touted the religious exemption as a way to gain Republican support for the bill.

The Washington Blade will keep this article open for additional or revised comments for state LGBT groups’ positions on ENDA and its religious exemption.

The statements from each of the equality groups that have responded to the survey from the Washington Blade follow:

Equality Alabama

“Equality Alabama strongly supports a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act — one free of loopholes and licenses to discriminate. Simultaneously, we also strongly support freedom of religion.”

“As we know all too well, little legislation comes from Washington that is perfect. Equality Alabama supports the passage of ENDA, but we are hopeful that the final legislation will protect all LGBT persons in the workplace.” — Ben Cooper, chair of Equality Alabama

Equality California

EQCA supports the passage of the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act, but we strongly oppose the broad religious exemption that has been attached to it.

“Ensuring that all American employees are judged on the quality of their work, not their sexual orientation or gender identity, is fundamental to achieving full equality. But that protection shouldn’t come with an asterisk or loophole, and that’s what this religious exemption is — a way to promise full protection without delivering it. This exemption undermines the value of ENDA and it must be fixed.” — Rick Zbur, EQCA executive director-elect

One Colorado

“One Colorado doesn’t have any comment at this time.” Jon Monteith, spokesperson for One Colorado.

Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance

“GLAA has long supported ENDA. Our position was to support the best achievable bill, because we understood the value of strategic compromise — not as an end point but as a way station in the ongoing struggle for equality.”

“But here in DC, as in the marriage equality fight, we have successfully fought against overbroad religious exemptions. Of course religious groups enjoy protections in their core religious functions; outside that sphere is another matter.”

“It is time to push back against the religious bullies. Religious exemptions beyond those applying to discrimination under Title VII should not be accepted in ENDA.” — GLAA President Rick Rosendall

Equality Delaware

“Equality Delaware has not yet taken a position as a board on the religious exemption in the ENDA bill. However, our general position is that discrimination against LGBT people is wrong, and that includes discrimination against those who work for religious entities in non-ministerial roles.” — Equality Delaware chief Lisa Goodman

Equality Florida

“While we are pleased with the progress and momentum behind ENDA, we are very concerned with the sweeping, unprecedented scope of the legislation’s religious exemption.”

“In the current version, ENDA’s religious exemption could provide religiously affiliated organizations – far beyond houses of worship – with a blank check to engage in employment discrimination against LGBT people.” — a Jan. 22, 2014 coalition letter to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen signed by Equality Florida

Equality Hawaii

“It would depend upon how the exemption is worded, but, in principle, we would hopes that religious exemption language is removed before passage. Considering that religious beliefs were once used to deny women the right to vote, justify segregation and oppose interracial marriage, gutting anti-discrimination laws is a slippery slope that turn back time on anti-discrimination laws. We certainly hope for ENDA’s passage and, if it does pass with this language in tact, hope that judicial and legislative steps will be quickly taken to correct this free pass to discriminate.” — Don Bentz, executive director of Equality Hawaii

Equality Illinois

“We support the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans, but we strongly oppose including any exemptions that would give LGBT people less protection than other protected groups already enjoy under federal civil rights law.” — Organizational statement from Equality Illnois

One Iowa

“Equality is equality. Unfortunately, we start to diminish that when we make the kinds of exemptions we are seeing in this iteration of ENDA. One Iowa fully respects, appreciates and understands a religious organization’s right to follow the tenets of its own belief system. However, when we move to a place where a religious body can freely discriminate against a staff person in a non-ministerial /non-religious position–a janitor or groundskeeper, for instance–that is problematic. Other protected classes do not have this added burden. One Iowa feels there needs to be more conversation around the nuances and the potential harm of this exemption.” — Executive Director Donna Red Wing

Fairness Campaign

“This exemption seems broader than the religious exemptions we’ve supported on local and statewide legislation in Kentucky. Still awaiting final analysis” — Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign

Forum for Equality

“We haven’t taken a position yet, we will be meeting next week to discuss. Sorry, at this point we have no position.” — Executive Director Sarah Jane Brady


“MassEquality supports the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to prohibit job discrimination against LGBT workers, as a modest first step in leveling the playing field for LGBT people and their families. However, we strongly oppose ENDA’s current religious exemption, which would provide LGBT people less protection than that afforded other protected groups under existing federal civil rights law. ENDA is about ensuring fairness and equality, both of which are undermined by an exemption that would result in second-class protections for LGBT people.” — MassEquality Executive Director Kara Coredini

Equality Maryland

“Equality Maryland has not taken a position on the current version of ENDA. If and when we do, I will let you know.” — Equality Maryland Executive Director Carrie Evans

Gender Rights Maryland

“We support the current ENDA. We also welcome the efforts being made to revise and narrow the exemptions, and hope that those efforts make it more likely that the House will pass the bill that has already passed the Senate. In an ideal world we’d have the same religious exemptions as Title VII, but it’s, unfortunately, no longer 1964.” — Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer

Equality Michigan

“We will issue a response and official statement. We are just doing our due diligence. We have every intention of standing by the response we send to you as we consider this extremely important. and are fighting like hell for similar and broader protections statewide here in Michigan. Much respect for the work you are doing as this develops.” — Executive Director Emily Dievendorf

OutFront Minnesota

“OutFront Minnesota supports the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but we oppose including any exemptions that would give LGBT people less protection than other protected groups already enjoy under federal civil rights law.”

“Minnesota passed an LGBT inclusive human rights act in 1993 and it has worked effectively to protect LGBT people. New and broader religious exemptions to LGBT nondiscrimination laws would be a step backward.” — Outfront Minnesota Director Jean Heyer

Equality Missouri

“Equality Missouri supports the passage of the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act, but we are strongly opposed the broad religious exemption that has been attached to it, the religious exemption is nothing more than a license to discriminate against LGBT people” — Field Director Caleb-Michael Files


“As it currently stands, we have not made a statement either in support or against the current version of ENDA. This isn’t so much to reflect the current controversy but rather the perception that it has a very limited chance of passing the House in any form at this time. If pressed on the religious exemptions, we would likely stand with EQIL, NCLR and the TLC in opposition to the religious exemptions, however our board has not taken up any position at this time. I wager the board would stand with those orgs mainly because the congressional representation from MO would not be persuaded to support ENDA, even with those broad exemptions, so why barter for support when it isn’t available.” — Executive Director A.J. Bockelman

Equality New Mexico

“We do not support the proposed religious exemption. Thus, we do not support the current version of ENDA. We hope our elected officials will see this religious exemption for what it is — a license to discriminate against LGBT people — and decide to remove it.” — Executive Director Amber Royster

Equality North Carolina

“While we oppose the religious exemption it is able to be removed down the line, we’re in a position in North Carolina where just don’t have the luxury of waiting for these protections. There are real-world problems that North Carolinians across the Tar Heel State face, including employment discrimination, so we do support employment non-discrimination as it stands and we will continue to push for it. We will also continue to advocate that religious exemptions will be removed in the future.” — Executive Director Christopher Sgro

Empire State Pride Agenda

“The Pride Agenda supports the swift passage of ENDA and belives that no one should be denied employment or fired from their job simply because of who they are. We also believe the religious exclusion should be consistent with the other protected classes and hope that the final bill is reflective of that and is signed into law soon.” — ESPA spokesperson Allison Steinberg

Equality Ohio

“Don’t have anything for you regarding national legislation at the moment – we’re working night and day working to make progress in Ohio.” — Communications Director Grant Stancliff.


“FreedomOhio believes ENDA can and must be strengthened by eliminating the overly broad religious exemption that permits employers to discriminate based on a person’s real or perceived sexual orientation. FreedomOhio cannot support a version of ENDA that legalizes discrimination in the workplace for non-ministerial workers.” — Executive Director Ian James

Basic Rights Oregon

“The effort to pass ENDA has been a decades-long struggle, and Basic Rights Oregon strongly support passage of ENDA and thanks Rep. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) for his leadership. We do have deep concerns about the special exemption that is currently in the bill, as it will result in discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. We are hopeful that the language will be modified to be consistent with legislation applied to other protected groups, rather than singling out LGBT people for disparate treatment.” — Executive Director Jeana Frazzini

Equality Pennsylvania

“Sorry but we are deep in a legislative session right now and we haven’t had time to review the language and talk to our board about this.” — Equality Pennsylvania spokesperson Levana Layendecker

South Carolina Equality

“The board decided last night to not provide official comment at this time. We reserve the right to weigh in on this issue at a future date once we explore the topic.”

“ENDA has not been our focus this year. We have been a 100 percent focused on SC House bill 4025 in the state legislature which would have banned discrimination in South Carolina laws. Our bill did not contain any religious exemptions because we attempted to update existing human affairs laws which did not include them either. The session just ended but we plan to reintroduce the same bill for next session.” — Executive Director Ryan Wilson

Tennessee Equality Project

“Our position is similar to Equality Illinois. We support the bill, but we are obviously opposed to carving out exemptions for non-clergy positions in religious schools and charities. We’re supporting ENDA because we have no hope of enacting state-level job protections that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I get calls every month from people in Tennessee who have been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” — Chris Sanders, President of the Tennessee Equality Project,

Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition

They are currently in support of the existing ENDA. They’re not happy with the religious exemption, but they’re not going to oppose ENDA because of it. They have “no intention of withdrawing support from the current version.” — Secretary Marisa Richmond

Transgender Equality Network of Texas

“We are in agreement with Transgender Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights in that we do not support a bill with the current religious exemption included.”

“We are already seeing an increase of growth in RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Acts) around the country, and find Arizona’s SB1062 particularly notable if it becomes a trend.” — Executive Director Katy Stewart

Equality Virginia

“I don’t have an answer for you. I apologize that we will not be able to participate in the poll this time around.” Equality Virginia spokesperson Kirsten Bokenkamp

Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force

“We’re not commenting on ENDA at this time.” — Board Chair Sheryl Rapée-Adams

Fair Wisconsin

“You might have heard that we have recently won marriage due to a federal ruling on Friday, and things have been busy as we are assisting clerks in Wisconsin with implementation. I will have to get back to you later about ENDA.” — Fair Wisconsin spokesperson Megin McDonell

Fairness West Virginia

“We’re not going to be able to meet your deadline. Typically we can respond faster to reporters for stories but many of our key people are out of reach right now. Best of luck with the poll, we look forward to reading what the results are.” — Fairness West Virginia spokesperson Carling McManus

Wyoming Equality

“Wyoming Equality obviously supports ENDA and making this a reality is one of our top priorities. However, as the proposed bill reads we would not be able to support it due to the broad religious exemption. We believe in freedom of religion and would be supportive of similar wording used in Title VII, but this feels like a religious exemption that would allow discrimination to continue against the LGBT community. No other minority group is subject to such a broad exemption. For example, this exemption would allow a Catholic School to fire a janitor just because they are LGBT! We want to see opinions in the work place develop around hard work and dedicated employees not sexual orientation or gender identity; and equality should never come with a footnote, asterisk or a loophole.” — Board Chair Jeran Artery

Justin Peligri contributed to this report.

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

  • I am very excited to see that all LGBT organizations in America are united to give a right step towards equality. Long enough we have suffered discrimination, and it is time to be ourselves and be treated equally. For that reason, ENDA must be fixed taking some exemptions out. It is important to remind all of you out there in America, life is too short to live, and we must leave the grounds built for future generations to enjoy. If those jobs are given to us only for being LGBT, we will have less opportunities and less jobs to apply for, and you should think about that too, because are professionals, hard workers, just like everybody else. Glad to see you are uniting on this cause and hope it goes forward. Equality must be achieved, but it must be achieved right, not just half.

  • Wisconsin's response frankly comes across as a bit rude.

  • You bitches that whine about ENDA not getting a vote need to stop derailing it. First it was about transgenders not being included in the bill. Not it’s about religious exemptions in it.

    You’re not going to be working a religious hospital, a religious anti-gay group or teaching at liberty or Brigham Young Universities. So get over it and let it go. We have secular choses to seek employment. This bill is more about keeping a religious bigot that works at a secular business like Walmart getting you fired for your sexual orientation or someone denying you a job at Exxon rather than about you getting a job at a religious bookstore! It might help you get a job at Chika-Fila if your so inclined but why not go to where they were supportive in the first place?

    Some of you are so short-sighted. It’s people like you that have really held us back in achieving our legislative victories more often than our enemies themselves!

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