No Religious Left “Split” On Anti-LGBT Religious Exemption

This weekend, the day before President Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball published a piece asserting that a “controversy” was emerging in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case that “has split gay-rights and faith groups on the left, with wide-ranging political fallout that some now fear could hurt both causes.”

That statement has slim, if any evidence to support it. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence against it.

“There is no division on the left,” Sharon Groves, Director of the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign, told me, referring to the overwhelming progressive religious opposition to the inclusion of a religious exemption in today’s order. Obama signed the order without a religious exemption.

As I reported two weeks ago, 100 religious leaders signed a letter to  Obama unequivocally opposing a religious exemption in the order. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a pro-LGBT rights Catholic group, told me that letter garnered “quick, rapid support” within a day or two of being drafted. “Everyone was on exactly the same page,” she said.

That letter was followed by a letter from civil liberties and diverse pro-LGBT religious groups, initially collecting 69 signatures, and later 98.

“I don’t know any people on the left who were for the [executive order] religious exemption,” said Duddy-Burke, adding that advocacy groups may differ on questions of strategy—such as whether to drop support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act if the bill includes a religious exemption. That assessment was echoed by other leaders I spoke with, who all emphasized those differences were ones of strategy in the post-Hobby Lobby legal landscape, not over whether there should be religious exemptions to laws guaranteeing LGBT rights.

Ball’s first piece of evidence is a quote from the centrist think tank Third Way, long a player in efforts to find “common ground” on hot button culture war issues, an effort that in the area of LGBT rights, at least, has been rapidly sidelined. Mystifyingly, Ball—who I must add here is a reporter I have long admired—describes Third Way’s “research and activism on gay marriage” as “instrumental to that cause’s mainstream acceptance.” (If anyone can point me to evidence that description is true, I’m all ears.)

“The narrative that’s now beginning to form is that Democrats are against religion. It’s not true, and it’s very dangerous,” Third Way’s Lanae Erickson Hatalsky tells Ball.

That’s so 2006! Who is pressing that narrative, aside from the religious right? Just because conservative religious figures were pressing for an exemption most certainly doesn’t mean that was the religious view. There was overwhelming religious support for the executive order, minus the exemption, and Obama embraced the presence of religious leaders at today’s White House signing. Someone in the audience even shouted “amen!”, to which the president responded, “Amen.  Amen. . . . Got the ‘amen’ corner here.”

The Rev. Canon Susan Russell, Senior Associate Minister at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, attended the White House signing today. Ball, said Russell, “got it wrong.”

Ball cites the abandoned effort of Sojourners’ Jim Wallis to send a letter to Obama urging the inclusion of an exemption, as well as the letter organized by former Obama campaign and White House staffer Michael Wear, signed by 14 religious leaders, as evidence of this alleged division on the left. As I wrote two weeks ago, the letter organized by Wear isn’t evidence of Obama allies cutting against the president’s pro-LGBT action; it’s evidence of one former staffer, who now consults for religious organizations, pressing the president to take a position that is at odds with the overwhelming unanimity of pro-LGBT religious leaders and advocacy organizations.

“There was certainly no division over what should happen with the executive order from what I consider long-term activists for LGBT equality,” said Russell. “I think it’s delightful that Jim Wallis has decided to come along, and he’s welcome along the 21st century train towards making liberty and justice for all actually mean all.” (Ball reports that Wallis and Wear “see themselves as deeply, spiritually committed to gay rights.”)

“But the fact that Jim Wallis and some other folks would prefer a broader religious exemption,” said Russell, “that’s not splitting the religious left.”

Speaking of the religious left that advocates for full equality for LGBT people, Russell said, “We’re not in disarray.”