Fourteen prominent faith leaders — including some of President Obama’s closest advisers — want the White House to create a religious exemption from his planned executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against gays and lesbians in hiring.
A letter to the White House, sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday, includes the signatures of Michael Wear, faith director for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Stephen Schneck, a leader of Catholic outreach in 2012; and Florida megapastor Joel Hunter, whom Obama has described as a close spiritual counselor.
The letter reminds Obama of his own earlier faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as the government’s massive partnerships with faith-based social service groups that work on issues including housing, disaster relief and hunger.
“While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion,” said the letter.
“An executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government.,” it said. “When the capacity of religious organizations is limited, the common good suffers.”
Obama announced last month that he would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He did this after failed efforts to get through Congress the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal under federal law to discriminate in the workplace — not just for contractors.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay equality advocacy group, nearly 90 percent of the Fortune 500 already ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. And while many see full gay legal equality as a foregone conclusion, this week’s decision at the Supreme Court — saying corporations may claim religious rights in denying workers contraception coverage — shows that legal tensions between religious liberty and rights around sexuality and reproduction are far from resolved.
The 14 signers of the letter include leaders of some of the country’s largest faith-based charities, notably Catholic Charities USA and World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The signers said they supported the executive order — “we have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you” — but said an exemption is essential.
“Americans have always disagreed on important issues, but our ability to live with our diversity is part of what makes this country great, and it continues to be essential even in this 21st-century,” the letter said. “Without a robust religious exemption . . . this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom.”
None of the groups mentioned in the letter have explicitly said they would pull out of their partnerships with the White House if they do not get an exemption.
The White House declined to comment, but Schneck said faith groups remain in conversation with the administration and are “hopeful.”
Schneck, who runs the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University, said he did not see any contradiction between supporting gay equality and the exemption.
“I think these things fit together pretty well,” he said. “Of all federal contracts, these [faith-based ones] are such a miniscule portion. The recognition of the divisive nature of these kinds of efforts [such as the executive order], it just makes perfect sense for the White House to give the faith-based groups time to work this out. It’s not that long ago when Obama himself was where these faith-based groups are now.”
Views are deeply divided. World Vision, a massive Christian relief nonprofit that received $179 million in 2013 from the government, announced a few months ago that it would allow employees to be in same-sex marriages and then immediately reversed itself after an outcry by donors.