We’ve seen it all before — activists demand something from the president, the president shifts attention to Congress, Congress (in its glorious dysfunction) does nothing, the president announces executive action, and the religious right goes nuts.
President Obama’s announcement Monday that he will sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors (i.e., companies that do business with the federal government) on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity was met with apoplectic shock from the religious right. If you were to listen to right-wing radio, you’d hear references to an “imperial president” who is “shoving this down our throats.” This should not come as a surprise — in fact, it’s right on cue.
However, it is a surprise that the White House isn’t firmly standing up to this pressure from the right and is considering whether to include unprecedented religious exemptions to this pending executive order. Over and over again, presidents have signed some version of an executive order that prohibits discrimination by federal contractors — Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed one, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed one, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed one — and the country has not fallen apart after mandating that companies paid with taxpayer money live up to nondiscrimination policies.
Over and over again, we have been told by our elected leaders (and even from our movement leaders) that civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans must have carve-outs for religiously affiliated institutions. While the language used in these admonitions is often flowery and steeped in First Amendment “freedom of religion” arguments, what is really at the heart of these arguments is that LGBTQ Americans really are less deserving of civil rights protections and LGBTQ Americans really should be discriminated against by religious institutions. It’s this simple — when it comes from straight folks, it’s bigotry; when it comes from gay folks, it’s 1990s thinking.
We must move our movement into 2014 thinking. We must internalize for ourselves that the American public is with us. We must step up to our place at the American table. We must decide, as a movement and as a people, that we deserve full equality under the law — and that adding exemptions to those laws by the people who are most responsible for fanning the flames of discrimination is not only un-American but also unconstitutional.
LGBTQ Americans do not deserve to be the targets of discrimination. As a country, we have said that it is wrong to discriminate — whether because of who a person is (like their race, gender, and national origin) or because of decisions a person has made (like religion and veteran status). It is time for the LGBTQ community to step up to the plate, and to insist that religious carve-outs and exemptions are simply a way for the religious right to keep discriminating with no holds barred. And it’s time for the White House to call the religious right out on that strategy by signing an executive order that includes everyone and that applies to everyone.
We need no less, we deserve no less, and we will settle for no less.
HEATHER CRONK is codirector of GetEqual.