Obama: LGBT rights for federal contractors

WASHINGTON (BP) -- President Obama has used his authority to extend workplace protections among federal contractors to homosexual, bisexual and transgender status – prompting concerns the action will subvert religious freedom.

Obama issued an executive order Monday (July 21) that bars federal contractors from discriminating based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity." His order -- which the White House announced in June would be forthcoming -- also ads "gender identity" to the list of categories protected in federal employment. The "sexual orientation" of federal employees already was protected.

The order maintains a 2002 directive by President George W. Bush that permits contractors that are religious corporations or institutions to employ individuals based on their religious identity.

Some defenders of religious liberty and freedom of conscience expressed their dissatisfaction with the order. They said the religious exemption would prove inadequate, especially affecting religious organizations that contract with the government to provide services to the needy.

"While we don't know the full implications of this executive order, I am disappointed that this administration persistently violates the freedom of conscience for religious organizations that provide necessary relief for the poor and endangered," Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said in a written release.

"The same religious convictions that inspire their social action are the convictions now considered outside the new mainstream of sexual revolutionary fundamentalism," he said. "The ones hurt will be the most vulnerable in our society."

Ryan Anderson, who specializes in religious freedom issues for the Heritage Foundation, said in a July 21 commentary the order "disregards the consciences and liberties of people of goodwill who happen not to share the government's opinions about issues of sexuality. All Americans should be free to contract with the government without penalty because of their reasonable beliefs about morally contentious issues."

While employers "should respect the intrinsic dignity" of all workers, Obama's order "undermines our nation's commitment to pluralism and religious liberty," Anderson wrote. The order includes "no protection for organizations that hire based on mission -- not on affiliation -- to continue to do so," he said.

The categories covered by the new order differ from those already protected, such as color, national origin, religion and sex, Anderson said. "[S]exual orientation and gender identity are unclear, ambiguous terms. They can refer to voluntary behaviors as well as thoughts and inclinations, and it is reasonable for employers to make distinctions based on actions," he wrote.

"Sexual orientation" normally encompasses homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgender status, includes transsexuals and cross-dressers.

The order does not cover federal grants, which pay for most social services, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. It still could affect religious groups' likelihood of applying for federal contracts, he said.

Some decisions by religious organizations "will be challenged by the rejected applicant as merely instances of discrimination, so it is predictable [the order] will lead to litigation and also may cause some religious organizations to back away from federal contracting so that their decision-making about sensitive issues of conduct won't be second-guessed by the courts," Carlson-Thies told Baptist Press via email.

Not all religious freedom organizations agreed with expanding the religious exemption.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined nearly 100 religious, civil liberties and gay rights organizations in a July 15 letter asking Obama not to include a "special exemption for religiously affiliated contractors" in his order. The groups also urged the president to revoke the exemption ordered by Bush.

"When a religiously affiliated organization makes the decision to request a taxpayer-funded contract with the federal government, it must play by the same rules as every other federal contractor," the BJC and other organizations wrote.

Obama signed the executive order before supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights gathered at the White House.

After being greeted by a standing ovation, the president told the crowd, "[T]hanks to your passionate advocacy and the irrefutable rightness of your cause, our government -- government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- will become just a little bit fairer."

The executive order follows the pattern of a growing number of states, federal contractors and major corporations. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia bar discrimination based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity." Of the 50 largest federal contractors, 86 percent protect "sexual orientation" and 61 percent protect "gender identity," according to the White House. Among Fortune 500 companies, 91 percent prohibit discrimination based on "sexual orientation" and 61 percent ban discrimination based on "gender identity," the White House reported.

Advocates for LGBT rights have been unable to convince Congress to pass the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), which would grant civil rights to all employees on the basis of homosexual, bisexual or transgender status. The U.S. Senate passed ENDA in November, but the House of Representatives has refused to act on it.


Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).