President Barack Obama signed an executive order yesterday prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by companies and organizations which contract with the federal government.
Most notably, Obama stood up to pressure from some religious leaders and did not include expanded religious exemptions in the order, the possibility of which had caused renewed fears in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision earlier this month.
Catholic LGBT advocates generally applauded the president, while the US bishops decried the order as “unprecedented and extreme.”
Below, Bondings 2.0 offers several commentaries on the executive order. We will cover religious exemptions, and specifically the future of LGBT rights in light of such exemptions, tomorrow.
Shortly after the executive order was signed, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth called on Catholics to oppose it, claiming that it “implements discrimination” by using the government’s economic power to enforce a “deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality.” Because the executive order omitted religious exemptions they claim the directive “is fundamentally flawed in itself, also needlessly prefers conflict and exclusion over coexistence and cooperation.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter wants the US bishops to move on and set the LGBT non-discrimination issue aside altogether:
“Too many bishops are still crouched in a defensive posture, too willing to let the faith be reduced to ethics (and that, only sexual ethics), then reduced to a legal strategy, convinced that the forces of secularization are hostile, organized and winning. This worldview, I would submit, is not the approach that has permitted Pope Francis to capture the imagination of the world…there is nothing in the Church’s teaching that demands gay people be systematically discriminated against in hiring at our Catholic institutions. This is a fight we should decline.”
However, many Catholics not only accept the order but have welcomed it without broader religious exemptions. Francis DeBernardo, executive director, of New Ways Ministry wrote in The Advocate about why Catholics and people of faith do not want broad religious exemptions in a post-Hobby Lobby nation. He begins:
“It used to be that religious leaders and lawmakers could strike a comfortable balance of protecting faith groups’ rights to self-determination and LGBT people’s rights to equal opportunity. But the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision disturbed that balance…
“Because the Hobby Lobby decision broadened the scope of what kind of entities can claim religious exemptions, several national organizations working for LGBT equality now fear that such provisions in ENDA will render the proposed law’s protections meaningless…Similarly, the Supreme Court case seems to have emboldened some conservative religious leaders to lobby Obama to include strong exemption language in his upcoming executive order.”
DeBernardo points out that though Hobby Lobby referred to the debate over insurance coverage for birth control, the connections to LGBT rights is an easy leap. Corporations are now granted religious beliefs, and could conceivably be able to seek religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBT people. He writes:
“Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, ‘If a private company can take its own religious beliefs and say you can’t have access to certain health care, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to an interpretation that a private company could have religious beliefs that LGBT people are not equal or somehow go against their beliefs and therefore fire them.’ And Equally Blessed, the Catholic LGBT equality coalition, detailed some of the potential disasters that can spring from this case: ‘This ruling might open the door for corporations not to provide benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, or not to cover appropriate health care services for transgender employees.’ “
He closes by speaking about his own Catholic faith, and the importance of understanding a few key points: that conscience is supreme for Catholics, that religions are not homogenous, that the bishops do not speak for lay Catholics, and that LGBT justice is something Catholics and other people of faith seek because of, not in spite of, their faith. DeBernardo concludes:
“As a practicing Catholic, I see that such an expansion cheapens the position of faith in society. Faith is about developing an intimate relationship with a personal God and reflecting that relationship in my attitudes and practices toward other people. Faith is about sacrificing some privileges because of wanting to live in accord with principles. Faith is not about having access to government contracts. Faith is not about forcing people to live by an employer’s personal beliefs, no matter how sincerely those beliefs may be held. Hobby Lobby’s approach to religious exemptions diminishes the importance of persons and relationships in religion…
“My Catholic faith teaches me that all people have human dignity, that all people are equal. The Catholic social justice tradition teaches me that the right to employment is a sacred and basic human right and should be respected by individuals and institutions such as government. My respect for religion teaches me to value the diversity of religious opinions, as well as the diversity of human beings. From these perspectives, both ENDA and the expected executive order are better served without any religious exemptions included.”
You can read the full piece on The Advocate‘s website by clicking here.
“As Catholics, we know firsthand why these protections are so important. On a near weekly basis, a Catholic teacher, parish employee or hospital worker is fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the last few months, news headlines have been filled with stories about Catholic employees who lost their jobs after marrying their same-sex partners, coming out as transgender, or for simply standing in support of their LGBT children.
“The President’s executive order will be an important step toward protecting these LGBT Catholic employees who serve our church and wider society so faithfully and who have been particularly vulnerable to discrimination. We applaud President Obama’s decision to not include a broad religious exemption in his executive order, which would have left our Catholic teachers, health care workers and administrators open to continued discrimination.”
Finally, David Gibson of Religion News Service reports that even a religious leader who had sought broad exemptions are pleased with Obama because the executive order maintains the Bush-era policy which allows preferential hiring of co-religionists. For example, Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America and former co-chair of Catholics for Obama, who had lobbied for broader religious exemptions, said he was pleased with the executive order as it was signed because it “has left open a path that religious groups can work with.”
In the coming week, Bondings 2.0 will consider the failure of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly known as ENDA, and where Catholic advocates for LGBT justice are moving next when it comes to protecting employment rights.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
New York Times: “Obama Urges Congress to Ban Job Bias Against Gays”
New York Times: “Obama to Issue Order Barring Anti-Gay Bias by Contractors“