As President Barack Obama gets closer to issuing an executive order protecting the LGBT employees of federal contractors from discrimination, a growing number of progressive faith voices are working to counter conservatives who are pressuring the administration to include special exemptions for religious groups.
Conservative faith groups were quick to voice apprehension over the executive order when it was first announced in June, with several Catholic bishops expressing “great concern” over how it might affect partnerships between the government and faith-based nonprofits. Then on Tuesday, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to exempt closely-held corporations from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious grounds, a group of 14 prominent faith leaders sent a letter to the President arguing that faith-based nonprofits that use federal funds but who do not embrace homosexuality should be exempt from the order. The letter was somewhat unusual, because while it listed several traditionally conservative voices such as megapastor Rick Warren, it also included the signatures of faith leaders who are fairly close to the administration, such as Michael Wear, former faith outreach director of Obama’s 2012 campaign for president.
“…It still may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue,” the letter read. “That is why we are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.”
But while the letter claimed to represent religious groups who “seek to serve in accordance with their faith and values,” it has triggered outrage among progressive religious groups who feel the signers don’t adequately represent America’s broader religious landscape. Faithful America, a progressive Christian organization, launched an online petition today decrying the letter and asking supporters to sign their name to a statement that read, “There’s nothing Christian about firing someone just because they’re gay or lesbian. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund discrimination.” The petition, which posted late Thursday morning, has already garnered over 11,000 signatures.
In addition, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, published an Op-Ed over at Time.com this afternoon saying that she was “devastated” by the letter, and argued that the proposed exemption should be left out of the executive order.
“I was saddened, I was embarrassed, I was appalled, [by the letter]” Jones wrote. “The faith that fought for justice for so many is now being used to justify injustice. The faith community that taught me to never throw stones was asking that Christians have a special permission to throw stones if they wanted. It’s simply theologically indefensible … I do not support a religious exemption that permits Christians to behave worse than their fellow citizens, and the president should not include it.”
Sources close to several progressive faith groups have also informed ThinkProgress that a coalition of denominations, faith-based advocacy organizations, and seminaries are crafting their own letter to President Obama asking him not to include the exemption. In fact, several other faith-based groups have publicly opposed the idea of a religious exemption ever since the Obama administration first announced their intention to issue the executive order a few weeks ago. As Sarah Posner points out over at Religion Dispatches, pro-LGBT faith groups such as Equally Blessed, a Catholic organization, have been vocal opponents of any stipulation that would allow for the discrimination of LGBT people, a sentiment echoed by Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, who voiced his organization’s opposition to the exemption by saying, “The tenet that religion should never be legitimated as a license to discriminate remains our core belief.”
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., also opposed the idea of an exemption on religious grounds.
“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,” he said. “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.”