Obama’s Religion Problem, Marriage Equality, and a Bush Executive Order

Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff asks in a column today why President Obama won’t just come right out and endorse marriage equality, arguing that there is no electoral downside:

There’s no point in waiting for a re-election victory to announce support for marriage equality. The people who would vote against Obama for his views on marriage rights aren’t going to support him anyway. A slight majority of the country now supports marriage equality, according to recent polls. And, with the economy continuing its stubborn slide, the 2012 election will not be won or lost on social issues.

It’s true that “social issues” won’t turn the election; they didn’t turn the 2008 campaign, either, but Obama still hedged on both reproductive rights and marriage equality during the campaign. Why? Because of religion, or, more specifically, because of the belief cultivated by inside-the-Beltway strategists that “people of faith” who had been voting Republican might just vote Democratic if Democrats would (a) talk about their “personal faith,” and (b) not be so ardent in their support of reproductive rights and marriage equality.

Candidate Obama played Reagan to that constituency’s leadership, a move that ultimately failed to impress. Overly rosy predictions of Obama’s ability to court the evangelical vote did not pan out; he won 26% of the white evangelical vote (just five percentage points more than John Kerry did in 2004). And claims by “faith outreach” strategist Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group that Democrats’ failure to perform what he considered sufficient faith outreach in the 2010 midterms led to House losses has been roundly rebutted by the facts.

Still, though, the Obama 2012 campaign plans to engage in religious outreach, although it is not yet clear what that will entail. But the campaign is notably refusing to take a stand on marriage equality. On The Last Word yesterday, senior Obama 2012 campaign strategist David Axelrod dithered on whether Obama would support marriage equality, pulling out the convenient excuse that states should decide the marriage issue (h/t Andy Towle). As Naff points out, though, “Obama’s refusal to evolve on the issue gives cover to our opponents on the right, who routinely cite the president’s opposition to marriage equality in state fights from California to New York to Maryland.”

As was made plain at Netroots Nation last weekend, some of Obama’s defenders think he’s done a lot, including Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal and the legal decision to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. But the refusal to endorse marriage equality still enfuriates equality advocates, including Lt. Dan Choi, who tore in half a pamphlet, handed to him by Organizing for America volunteer Nick Tschida, after Tschida said he doesn’t support marriage equality. (Not all equality advocates hailed Choi; Naff criticized his “melodramatic outburst,” adding that “sometimes there’s a fine line between advocacy and grandstanding.”)

Obama has another opportunity to refuse to let the religious beliefs of some dictate the deprivation of rights for others. Today the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) is calling on Obama to honor this week’s anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination by military contractors, by finally putting an end to a Bush-era executive order that permits religious organizations receiving federal grants to discriminate in hiring based on religion. Fifty-two civil liberties, faith, and other organizations signed on to CARD’s letter to the president. There is a press conference later today on Capitol Hill, at which members of Congress and of CARD plan to call “for President Obama to restore religious liberty protections in employment law” after President George W. Bush rolled those protections back via executive order in 2002. 

I have written about this many times, but I will write it again: Obama promised on the campaign trail in a July 2008 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, to end religious discrimination by recipients of federal faith-based money. After that speech, the campaign got pushback from evangelical leaders, who insisted that they wouldn’t even want federal money if they couldn’t engage in what they call “co-religionist hiring,” that is, the ability to only hire applicants of the same faith, or to refuse employment to someone, like, say, a Muslim or a lesbian. Once in office, Obama backtracked and didn’t reverse the Bush executive order, putting CARD (which includes a number of faith and civil liberties organizations) on a three-year quest to get him to honor his campaign promise. (It’s always been a mystery to me how the anti-choice rallying cry, based on the falsehood that your taxpayer money would pay for someone’s abortion, has been used to such great effect to mobilize conservative activists against health care reform, but the use of taxpayer money to support discrimination has failed to rally Obama’s own base to pressure him to end this despicable practice.)

Last year, supporters of “co-religionist hiring” asked members of Congress not to pass a reauthorization bill for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration that would have prohibited religious discrimination by recipients of federal funding. The signatories to that letter included World Vision president Richard Stearns, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America president Nathan Diament, Anthony R. Picarello of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sojourners president Jim Wallis, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez, Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin “Islam-is-an-evil-and-wicked-religion” Graham, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Four of them — Stearns, Diament, Picarello, and Wallis — served on Obama’s first Advisory Council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

And speaking of Wallis, on my way back from the Netroots Nation conference, I ran into Burns Strider, Sapp’s partner in the Eleison Group and a sometimes-spokesperson for Wallis and Sojourners. Strider, who convened a panel at Netroots called “Moving Forward with Faith,” mentioned to me that he was “amused” by the recent flap over Sojourners’ refusal to run the Believe Out Loud LGBT welcome ad.

Obama’s hedging on the hiring discrimination issue is just like his hedging on marriage equality: the constitutional lawyer Barack Obama sees the issue quite clearly and fairly. But candidate and president Obama, faced with the advice of strategists and erstwhile supporters that “people of faith” might object, backpedals. For anyone who finds Democratic faith pandering a harmless exercise in kumbaya, a closer look at its consequences might be in order.

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