Although a number of LGBT groups withdrew their support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act this week over the bill’s religious exemption, the White House insists the Obama administration’s support hasn’t wavered.
Under questioning from the Washington Blade on Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration is aware of concerns over ENDA, but continues to support the bill.
“I know that advocates have changed their position on this, and we’re certainly aware of their changing position, but this administration has not changed ours,” Earnest said.
Five legal groups that advocate for the LGBT community withdrew their support from ENDA this week, along with Pride at Work, and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force announced it now opposes the bill. Their concern is ENDA’s religious exemption, which is broader than language under existing civil rights law protecting workers based on race, religion, gender and national origin.
A spokesperson for the Task Force told the Blade the organization would urge President Obama to veto the legislation if it came to his desk with a broad religious exemption.
But Earnest rejected the idea that Obama opposes the religious exemption or would veto ENDA over the language. Asked by the Blade whether Obama would veto the current version of ENDA, Earnest replied, “No. We continue to support ENDA legislation.”
Earnest said the president’s position on ENDA is clear when asked if Obama would welcome a narrowing of the religious exemption in the current version of the bill.
Despite the administration’s continued support for ENDA, Earnest cast significant doubts about the prospects of the legislation passing by the end of this Congress, saying they’re “not very good.”
Earnest based this assessment not on the withdrawal of support from LGBT groups, but on the refusal of House Republicans thus far to bring up the bill, as well as a busy congressional schedule with many other pieces of legislation pending, such as comprehensive immigration reform.
“I would acknowledge as I did a few weeks ago that the prospects for passing it through the House are not very good, and that’s unfortunate,” Earnest said. “That’s one of the reasons why the president’s considering doing something using his executive authority.”
Amid concerns over ENDA, groups that continue to support the bill, including the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Work, endorsed the idea of broader legislation that would cover not just employment, but other categories like public accommodations, housing and education.
However, Earnest would only say the White House would “consider” a comprehensive bill and wouldn’t affirm that Obama would support such legislation if it were introduced in Congress.
“We’d consider it, Chris, but not I’m personally familiar with it,” Earnest said.
There’s speculation that groups withdrew support from ENDA over its religious exemption to place themselves in a better position to oppose similar language in a planned executive order barring anti-LGBT bias among federal contractors.
Despite the withdrawal of support from LGBT groups, Earnest said he wasn’t in a position to rule out the possibility of a religious exemption in the planned executive order.
“I’m not prepared at this point to talk about any of the contents of any executive order that president may sign,” Earnest said.
A House aide familiar with ENDA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said congressional leaders are reviewing options for the best path forward for ENDA in the aftermath of LGBT groups withdrawing support from the bill.
While the aide said no avenue at this time — such as reintroduction of ENDA with a narrow religious exemption — is off the table, no option is more likely than another. The aide anticipated having a resolution to the concerns expressed by LGBT groups “within the next week,” but declined to give information on what form the resolution would take.
“People are working diligently, we want to have this resolved and be able to move forward,” the aide said.
The transcript of the exchange between Earnest and the Blade follows:
Washington Blade: Questions on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. A number of LGBT groups withdrew support from the bill this week because of its religious exemption. In fact, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force now opposes the bill. The president has stated support for ENDA numerous times, but he is aware of the concerns expressed by these groups, and would he considering vetoing it if it came to his desk with the current religious exemption?
Josh Earnest: Chris, the president has long supported an inclusive ENDA, and we continue to believe that Congress needs to pass legislation that protects LGBT Americans from employment discrimination. The president has talked often about his opposition to any sort of policies or views that discriminate against any individuals because of who they are, or the color of their skin, their name or who they love. And that is the principle that the president believes should be enshrined into federal law, in this case, through an inclusive-ENDA.
We’re certainly aware of the ongoing conversations about ENDA, and look forward to working with lawmakers and advocates to achieve this important goal.
Blade: But is he concerned about the religious exemption in ENDA and would that prompt him to veto the legislation?
Earnest: No. We continue to support ENDA legislation.
Blade: But would the president welcome a narrowing of that exemption in the bill?
Earnest: Well, I think I’ve been pretty clear about what our position is. I know that advocates have changed their position on this, and we’re certainly aware of their changing position, but this administration has not changed ours.
Blade: Following the withdrawal of support from these groups, does the White House realistic see any chance of ENDA passing this year, or is the legislation dead?
Earnest: Well, when we talked about the fact that the president is considering an ENDA EO a few weeks ago, we noted that it had passed through the Senate with bipartisan support, but was stuck in the House. We noted that the prospects in the House, like so many other pieces of common-sense, worthwhile legislation, have hit a dead-end there, unfortunately, because of the obstruction of congressional Republicans. So, I would acknowledge as I did a few weeks ago that the prospects for passing it through the House are not very good, and that’s unfortunate. That’s one of the reasons why the president’s considering doing something using his executive authority.
Blade: Amid this controversy, a number of groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, have endorsed the idea of a more comprehensive bill that in addition to employment, would cover public accommodations, housing and credit. Would the president support such a bill?
Earnest: We’d consider it, Chris, but not I’m personally familiar with it.
Blade: And, finally, one last question. With the concern about the religious exemption in ENDA on the table, are you in a position to rule out the possibility of a similar religious exemption appearing in the planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors?
Earnest: I’m not prepared at this point to talk about any of the contents of any executive order that president may sign.