Jim Wallis
A Progressive Endorses Freedom to Discriminate?

By Trudy Ring

Originally published on Advocate.com July 04 2014 2:38 PM ET

Progressive religious leader Jim Wallis has been preparing to join the voices asking for religious exemptions in President Obama’s executive order on LGBT discrimination — but now he’s having second thoughts.

Meanwhile, other progressive religious activists are denouncing calls for such exemptions in the order, still being drafted, which would prohibit companies doing business with the federal government from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Wallis, the head of liberal Christian group Sojourners, drafted a letter this week urging the president to include “a clear and strong religious exemption” in the order, reports BuzzFeed, which obtained a copy of the draft. Now, Wallis tells BuzzFeed, the letter may not be sent.

The letter would have been into addition to one sent earlier this week by Michael Wear, Rick Warren, and 12 other religious leaders, and one sent by about 100 others last week. Wallis told BuzzFeed it was intended as something of a counterpoint to those letters.

Other letters “were all very equivocal about LGBT equal protection in hiring, which I am not equivocal about,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t believe in those, I thought they were not nearly as supportive as I am and should be about equal protection.” He backtracked on some of the contents of the draft, which he said arose from conversations initiated by White House staff about how to help in the process of crafting the executive order.

The draft states that while the endorsers believe in such protections, they believe that if the government imposes them on faith-based institutions, it will be counterproductive.

“We believe that change in our churches is necessary in regard to welcoming LGBT persons and are committed to working on that,” it states. “But we believe that government action in making those changes would be very counter-productive to our goals of change. … Change is coming on the inside, but those changes could easily be reversed if they were perceived to be forced by the government.”

It urges exemptions like those in the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would allow religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, and other entities to continue discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Some LGBT groups have withdrawn support for ENDA, still pending in Congress, because they consider the exemptions overly broad, allowing discrimination in jobs that have little or nothing to do with an employer’s religious mission — for instance, a Christian school could refuse to hire a gay groundskeeper.

Wallis’s draft, however, states, “If religious exemptions are removed, withdrawn, or seriously cut back from those in place, like in ENDA, the perception will be that your administration is attacking religious freedom and liberty.”

Speaking to BuzzFeed, Wallis stressed, “The letter has not been finalized, it’s not been signed, it’s not been sent. … That letter is a conversation between people about whether we should say something in a private letter to just a few friends at the White House. That’s all this is.” The letter may not even be sent now, he added.

At the same time, LGBT-supportive Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths are countering the voices of those seeking exemptions. “I do not support a religious exemption that permits Christians to behave worse than their fellow citizens, and the president should not include it,” wrote Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, in a column published Thursday on Time’s website.

Also, the progressive religious group Faithful America started an online petition Thursday “to show the White House just how many Christians are outraged that our faith is being exploited to justify anti-gay discrimination,” the petition states. And some religious leaders are planning to send a letter opposing exemptions in the executive order, ThinkProgress reports.