Faith Leaders Beg Obama for Religious Exemptions in ENDA Exec. Order

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com June 27 2014 5:29 PM ET

More than 100 religious leaders have signed on to a letter asking President Obama to "respect this vital element of religious freedom" by allowing religiously affiliated groups to ignore the LGBT nondiscrimination order the President recently announced he would sign for companies that partner with the federal government. 

Earlier this month, the White House announced Obama's plan to sign an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT employees by federal contractors, as more wide-ranging federal legislation remains stalled in the House. 

Mere days after that announcement, religious organizations were clamoring to see Obama insert religious exemption language, allowing religiously affiliated federal contractors to fire, refuse to hire, or decline to promote LGBT people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

But this letter, sent June 25 and organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, goes farther than those general calls, suggesting specific language which the religious groups would like to see included in Obama's executive order. 

First, the letter asks the President to adopt the religious exemption language approved by the U.S. Senate when it passed ENDA in November in his forthcoming executive order.

"This is necessary so that the executive order does not have the effect of excluding faith-based organizations that exercise their constitutional and Title VII right to have religiously grounded employee belief and conduct requirements," reads the letter, before suggesting specific language for the executive order.

Lauding "religious liberty" as "our nation's first freedom," the letter goes on to suggest a non-retaliation clause also be included in the executive order, making it impossible for those LGBT people employed by religious organizations who believe they experienced discrimination in the workplace on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity to file a formal complaint or seek damages. It also indemnifies the organization from supposed retaliation from the government in the form of denying future contracts. 

While both of these clauses are reflective of language passed in the Senate version of ENDA, the letter goes one step farther, asking Obama to include "language to underscore this Administration's intent to protect religious freedom in the context of any LGBT executive order."

Among the signatories are professors at the University of Notre Dame, Stanford Law School, the University of Virginia, Colorado Christian College, Trinity International University, Geneva College, Biola University, Calvin College, and others. Heads of numerous religiously affiliated organizations also signed on to the letter, including the Center for Public Justice and World Vision, which came under fire from fellow conservatives this spring after the nonprofit briefly announced it would welcome gay and lesbian employees as long as they were legally married. The backlash was so swift that within 24 hours, World Vision announced that it was reverting to its previous antigay policy

Finally, pastors, directors, and ministers representing several denominations also signed on to the letter, including ministers with the Presbyterian Church USA, the International Pentecostal Church of Christ, the Evangelical Free Church in America, the Mennonite Bretheren Church, and several Methodist and Baptist  churches. A sentence at the letter's conclusion clarifies that the undersigned speak only on behalf of themselves, not the organizations or schools by which they are employed.