By Bob Allen
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined nearly 100 other civil- and religious-liberty organizations in a letter July 15 urging President Obama to reject calls to exempt religious groups from an upcoming executive order banning discrimination against LGBT workers by federal contractors.
“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 letter said.
The letter also renewed a call in a previous letter in 2011 asking Obama to rescind language added to an executive order in 2002 by President George W. Bush allowing religious organizations that receive government contracts to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
The original executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, prohibited employment discrimination by defense contractors based on “race, creed, color or national origin.”
Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson expanded those protection to prohibit discrimination in all government contracts. President Bush issued Executive Order 13279 of Dec. 12, 2002, allowing faith-based and community organizations to compete for public funds and yet still discriminate in hiring.
“Many of our organizations wrote to you in June 2011 to urge you to rescind this harmful amendment and we reiterate our request that you restore this key civil rights protection,” the new letter said.
“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished values, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character,” the letter said. “It guarantees us the freedom to hold any belief we choose and the right to act on our religious beliefs within certain limits. It does not, however, provide organizations the right to discriminate using taxpayer dollars.”
President Obama directed his staff in June to draft an executive order that would ban workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal contractors.
Immediately faith leaders including Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren suggested the president include an exemption for religious groups similar to one in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Several groups followed with letters lobbying the president to ignore the suggestion. More than 50 legal scholars wrote an open letter July 15 urging Obama “to refrain from including religious exemption language in any executive order providing nondiscrimination guarantees for LGBT employees of federal contractors.”
“The federal government is free to require that government contractors adhere to government standards,” the legal scholars argued. “Religious contractors do not have a right to government contracts, and there is no burden on their religious exercise if they are unable or unwilling to comply with those requirements.”
“When spending taxpayer dollars the government should be permitted to favor — and indeed, should favor — employers who do not discriminate on invidious grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity,” the letter said.
The letter from civil- and religious-liberty advocates urged Obama “to prohibit any discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or religion with taxpayer funds by all federal contractors, including religiously affiliated organizations.”
Other signers in addition to the BJC included Americans United for Separation of Church and State, African American Ministers in Action, Muslims for Progressive Values and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.
According to a BJC blog, the letter is in part a follow-up to another letter last month asking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to withdraw a 7-year-old Department of Justice policy interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as overriding all non-discrimination laws
Ninety religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s and health organizations said the rule “stands as one of the most notable examples of the Bush Administration’s attempt to impose a constitutionally erroneous and deeply harmful policy.”
“RFRA should not be interpreted or employed as a tool for broadly overriding statutory protections against religious discrimination or to create a broad free exercise right to receive government grants without complying with applicable regulations that protect taxpayers,” said the letter dated June 10.