It's happening, folks: yesterday, just one day after the Supreme Court's disastrous decision giving religious rights to closely-held corporations, a group of faith leaders -- including some of President Obama's closest advisers -- sent a letter to the White House asking for a religious exemption in Obama's upcoming executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people.
The Washington Post reports:
A letter to the White House, sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday, includes the signatures of Michael Wear, faith director for Obama's 2012 campaign; Stephen Schneck, a leader of Catholic outreach in 2012; and Florida megapastor Joel Hunter, whom Obama has described as a close spiritual counselor.
The letter reminds Obama of his own earlier faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as the government's massive partnerships with faith-based social service groups that work on issues including housing, disaster relief and hunger.
"While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion," said the letter.
"An executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government.," it said. "When the capacity of religious organizations is limited, the common good suffers."
Signers of the letter want Obama's executive order to include a religious exemption "like the provisions in the Senate-passed ENDA," which they call "robust" (and LGBT civil rights advocates call troublesome, unprecedented, and "gaping"). They further claim that an exemption-free EO would threaten "the common good, national unity and religious freedom."
More, including a copy of the letter, after the break.
This is the second time in less than a week that faith leaders have asked the President for these special exemptions: on June 27, a group of approximately 160 anti-LGBT religious leaders begged Obama for "religious liberty" carve-outs that are even broader than those contained in the current version of ENDA. This new letter, the Atlantic's Molly Ball reports, is part of a separate and potentially more dangerous effort:
It comes from as 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.
"This is not an antagonistic letter by any means," Wear told me. But in the wake of Hobby Lobby, he said, "the administration does have a decision to make whether they want to recalibrate their approach to some of these issues."
The signatories, Ball writes, contend that the Hobby Lobby decision impels the White House to rethink how it balances two competing rights: the right of LGBT people to transact business in the public marketplace without being discriminated against, and the right of anti-LGBT religious groups to "work with the government while following the dictates of their faith" (i.e. to discriminate on the taxpayers' dime).
Of course, there is no actual, constitutional "right" to a government contract. These religious groups will be able to continue their work whether or not the executive order contains the broad carve-out for faith-based discrimination that they seek, and if they want to continue performing that charity work with federal dollars, they won't have to change their religious beliefs -- they'll just have to stop mistreating LGBT people in hiring, firing, and the workplace. But as we know, all too often in these debates -- especially those around LGBT issues -- facts don't matter.
Just in case the above isn't bad enough, Sarah Posner over at Religion Dispatches writes that there's a good chance the arguments in yesterday's letter will be able to persuade President Obama, given his own troubling track record of caving to pressure and granting special rights to religion-based groups:
Obama, even when not legally required, has a history of offering churches and religious non-profits exemptions and accommodations from the law: for example, HHS granted churches an exemption and religious non-profits an accommodation when drafting the contraception coverage benefit.In Monday's decision, the Court suggested the accommodation made available to religious non-profits might be applicable to closely-held corporations as well.
On the hiring issue, too, Obama has deferred to the demands of religious non-profits, reneging on a campaign promise to end hiring discrimination by religious non-profits that receive federal funding to carry out their charitable activities. That reversal came under pressure from religious leaders who wanted that exemption -- rooted in a 2007 Bush administration Justice Department memo -- to remain in place.
Incidentally, this is the very sort of thing that the majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. ostensibly tried to avoid: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the decision "concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood" to open the door to "religious liberty" challenges to things like insurance coverage for vaccinations and blood transfusions, equal pay requirements, or nondiscrimination laws.
But as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick points out, the ruling leaves us with nothing more than a "pinky swear" that the ruling can't apply to other mandates. In a scathing dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, calling the ruling "a decision of startling breadth" that will allow businesses to opt out of almost any law that they declare "incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
The battle over the scope of President Obama's forthcoming ENDA EO could be the first real test of Hobby Lobby's scope.
Scared yet? You should be. If these faith leaders succeed in getting the exemptions they're begging for, the ENDA executive order would be useless. We must tell President Obama loud and clear: no special rights for religious bigotry!!!
Read the letter:
Religious Exemption Letter to President Obama by JohnMBecker
"Quit Squirming" cartoon by artist Mike Ritter of the GA Voice.