In the intensifying debate over religious liberty, President Barack Obama faces pressure from opposite flanks as he prepares to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against gay and transgender people in hiring.
Many religious leaders and conservative groups want him to exempt religious organizations from the order. Liberal clergy and groups advocating on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people adamantly oppose such an exemption — and have pulled their support for a non-discrimination bill they long supported to drive the point home.
The upshot is a difficult balancing act for the White House, which says the executive order is still being drafted — nearly a month after Obama announced he would sign it. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to say whether a religious exemption would be included or was even being considered.
Within the past two weeks, scores of religious leaders of contrasting views have signed letters to Obama, arguing for and against an exemption.
One letter, signed by 14 faith leaders urging a "robust" exemption, was organized by Michael Wear, a Washington-based consultant who previously worked on Obama's re-election campaign and in the White House office of faith-based initiatives.
"It's a tough issue for the White House, and for me and many of the signers of the letter," Wear said. "It's about a tension between two constitutionally valid principles — protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and also protecting groups whose whole being is about religious belief."
He said the exemption sought by the 14 signatories of his letter would not establish new prerogatives for religious organizations, but would enable them to continue long-standing hiring practices favoring people who share the employers' faith. Among those signing were popular evangelical preacher Rick Warren, prominent megachurch pastor and Obama confidant Joel Hunter, and the Rev. Larry Snyder, CEO of Catholic Charities USA.
Opponents of an exemption say existing federal policy already allows some religious organizations the leeway to hire and fire based upon religious identity. However, that provision does not permit discrimination based on race, gender or disability, and gay-rights supporters say discrimination against LGBT people also should be barred.
"There is unanimity among every LGBT group that no new religious exemptions will be tolerated," said Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Taxpayers dollars should not be used to discriminate."
Many large federal contractors already have employment policies barring anti-gay workplace discrimination, as do 21 states. However, the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that the executive order would extend protections to about 14 million workers whose employers or states currently do not have such nondiscrimination policies.
While few religious organizations are among the biggest federal contractors, they do provide some valued services, including overseas relief and development programs and re-entry programs for inmates leaving federal prisons.
"Some faith-based organizations' religious identity requires that their employees share that identity," said the letter organized by Wear. "We still believe those organizations can serve their country."
However, the letter acknowledged the complexity of the debate, saying, "There is no perfect solution that will make all parties completely happy."
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