Many Religious Leaders Oppose Religious Exemption in Anti-Discrimination Order

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes the letter from religious leaders to President Obama, requesting an exemption from his forthcoming executive order barring sexual orientation discrimination by federal contractors:

The Hobby Lobby decision has been welcomed by religious-right groups who accuse Obama of waging a war on religion. But Tuesday’s letter is different: It comes from a group of faith leaders who are generally friendly to the administration, many of whom have closely advised the White House on issues like immigration reform. The letter was organized by Michael Wear, who worked in the Obama White House and directed faith outreach for the president’s 2012 campaign. Signers include two members of Catholics for Obama and three former members of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

But there are plenty of religious figures — most if not all of whom could be described as “generally friendly to the administration” — who oppose granting such a religious exemption. As I wrote yesterday, 90 civil rights and religious groups oppose the religious exemption the Department of Justice has granted to contractors under the Violence Against Women Act. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, which boasts numerous faith-based members from different religious traditions, has, for five years, opposed the administration’s ongoing granting of religious exemptions to federal contractors.

It’s true that many of of the figures signing the letter — organized by a former campaign and White House staffer who now runs a consulting firm that says it “advis[es] Christian leaders and organizations on cultural, political, policy and communications issues” — are “friendly” to Obama or worked for his campaign. But it’s also true that many more advocacy and faith-based organizations that support church-state separation, religious freedom, and LGBT rights (and have no stake in this issue as federal contractors) are also friendly to Obama and strongly oppose an exemption. The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, who supports the executive order but expressed opposition to an exemption when Obama first announced the executive order last month, reiterated his opposition yesterday, saying, “The tenet that religion should never be legitimated as a license to discriminate remains our core belief; that federal money must never be used to fund such discrimination must remain the bedrock of religious freedom in America.”

On June 24, after Obama’s announcement of the executive order, The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, praised Obama’s action, adding, “I also take issue with calls from some faith leaders for the inclusion of a religious exemption in the executive order or in federal legislation. They falsely claim that federal workplace non-discrimination legislation would threaten religious freedom. As a Christian, it is deplorable to me to suggest that someone should have the right to discriminate against you for simply who you are or whom you love.”

Equally Blessed, a coalition of four pro-LGBT rights Catholic organizations, issued this statement on June 27:

A broad religious exemption would affect not only ministers but thousands of educators, health care providers and nonprofit administrators employed by the Catholic Church. Religiously affiliated hospitals would have grounds to fire LGBT doctors. Religiously affiliated universities could fire LGBT faculty. Religiously affiliated social service and relief agencies could fire LGBT social workers and program officers.  Such actions would not only harm individual employees and their families, but would also damage the effectiveness of these valuable institutions. According to a March 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 73 percent of U. S. Catholics support laws that would protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination in the workplace. We join these Catholics in urging President Obama to sign an executive order protecting LGBT workers without a religious exemption, so that our Catholic employees can be free to serve our church and wider society without the threat of discrimination.

As I’ve noted numerous times before, as a candidate Obama appeared to understand this issue, pledging to end federally-funded workplace discrimination based on religion. But a center-right group of religious activists have long used the hiring issue to pressure Obama, hinting that he would lose their support if he didn’t maintain an exemption, and claiming that they could not continue their federally-funded faith-based charitable work without being allowed to engage in what they call “co-religionist” hiring. As recounted by Tony Campolo, a pro-Obama evangelical who supported the exemption, Obama yielded to their pressure:

During the days leading up to the [2008] November election, there were numerous telephone conversations between Obama’s political strategists and the leaders of some of the largest faith-based organizations in the country. To still the anxieties of these leaders, word was sent down on the eve of the election giving assurances that if no fuss was made by drawing attention to these problems, the policies that were in place on these matters during the Bush Administration would be continued. The message, according to one Christian leader, was that Obama himself had communicated this to him. The policy permitting religious exemptions has continued to remain in place, five years later.

That “friendly” advocates are pressing Obama in the wake of Hobby Lobby causes additional concern, in that their letter could be interpreted as a request that Obama not only further entrench the available exemption to non-profit contractors, but extend it to for-profit contractors who claim they operate out of religious motivation. But things were different in 2008 and 2009, when Obama yielded to the concerns of the proponents of  taxpayer funded “co-religionist” hiring. It’s long been an issue that has flown under the radar, drawing little attention or interest from the public. Now the Hobby Lobby decision has raised the public’s awareness of religious exemptions. The letter from the 14 religious figures is not a man-bites-dog story. It’s an old story of Obama’s efforts to form alliances with center-right evangelicals and Catholics, even as they opposed key parts of his agenda. But they’re not the only Obama-friendly religious figures. There are many others whose faith is not offended by being required to comply with anti-discrimination laws.

(An earlier version of this post misidentified the consulting firm Wear runs. We regret the error).