Politics & Government

Faith, gay rights make tough marriage for Obama order

Gay rights activists cheered when President Barack Obama announced that he’d sign a long-sought executive order prohibiting companies that do government work from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

But after more than three weeks, the order still hasn’t been issued. And religious groups have seized on the unusual delay to aggressively lobby the White House to exclude faith-based institutions – such as universities, hospitals and nursing homes – from the executive order.

They’ve met with White House staff, written letters to the president and spoken to administration officials by phone.

Obama now finds himself caught between gay rights organizations and faith-based groups, potentially facing a backlash from one – or both – of them before the crucial midterm elections in November.

“They’re in a box of their own making,” said Heather Cronk, a co-director of the gay rights group GetEQUAL. “They want to have it both ways.”

As public opinion has begun to shift across the United States in favor of gay rights, governments, companies and institutions are struggling to find a balance between religious liberties and individual rights.

The White House is weighing whether to include language similar to that in a 2002 executive order signed by President George W. Bush that allows faith-based contractors to consider religion in certain hiring decisions without jeopardizing grants or contracts, according to activists on both sides of the issue.

More than 150 conservative religious groups and leaders sent a letter to Obama on June 25 saying that “any executive order that does not fully protect religious freedom will face widespread opposition and will further fragment our nation.”

Another group of leaders, many with close ties to the president, wrote him July 1 to ask 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.”

Michael Wear, who worked in the White House during Obama’s first term and directed his faith outreach in the 2012 campaign, organized the July 1 letter, which calls for a “robust religious exemption.” It was signed by Larry Snyder, the chief executive of Catholic Charities USA, and Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, who delivered the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration, among others.

Wear said the group wasn’t pushing for specific language. “What folks are looking for is for organizations that have partnered with the federal government for decades to continue to be able to do so,” he said.

The Bush-era language would be palatable to gay rights groups, but broader exemptions pushed by some religious organizations would not.

“We do not oppose importing that language,” said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which was invited to a recent meeting at the White House to talk about the language. “What we absolutely will not stand for is language that goes farther.”

Earlier this week, some gay rights groups withdrew support for legislation that would ban discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation because they fear the inclusion of broad religious exemptions. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate but has stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Just last week the Supreme Court ruled that family-owned corporations don’t have to offer their employees contraceptives on their employee health insurance plans as required under federal law if that conflicts with the owners’ religious beliefs.

One hundred liberal faith leaders sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday urging him to issue the order with no new religious exemption.

It’s legal to fire or to refuse employment to someone based on sexual orientation in 29 states, while 32 states lack explicit laws banning discrimination based on gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group.

The executive order will apply only to companies that contract with the federal government, but the Human Rights Campaign said those businesses employed more than 20 percent of the American workforce – 28 million people – and collected around $500 billion in federal contracts every year.

The White House contacted gay rights organizations June 16, a day before the president headlined the 15th annual Democratic National Committee LGBT Leadership Council’s fundraiser in New York, to let them know an order would be signed. Federal contractors are already prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The president had long resisted issuing an order because he said he wanted Congress to pass legislation. After years of inaction on Capitol Hill and intense lobbying by gay rights groups, he decided to act. But the White House inexplicably failed to release the language immediately as is the administration’s practice with most executive orders and actions.

Activists on both sides of the issue haven’t been given a reason for the postponement, but think the White House was waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care and weighing initial reaction before releasing the language.

The White House has declined to comment on the delay or the language.

“That’s an executive order that’s still being drafted, and so I wouldn’t want to speculate about the contents of that order until it’s been finalized,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said recently.

White House officials have told activists they’d issue the order in a matter of weeks, perhaps as soon as next week.

“It would be so in their interest to pull the bandage off and do the right thing and get it done,” Kendell said.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01.