(RNS) One of the toughest political calculations in Washington is balancing competing claims of gay rights with the traditional prerogatives of religious freedom. After a number of setbacks on that front, President Obama may have finally found a small patch of middle ground with Monday’s (July 21) move to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

President Obama on July 21, 2014, signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

President Obama on July 21, 2014 signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Public domain image by White House Live

Obama’s executive order shields gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination by companies that do work for the federal government by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to long-standing protections from bias based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

Yet Monday’s action also leaves in place a 2002 order signed by President George W. Bush that gives religious groups with federal contracts some leeway by allowing them to use religious beliefs as a criterion in making hiring and firing decisions; as a candidate in 2008 Obama pledged to overturn that exemption.

At the same time, Obama did not expand the exemption to explicitly allow religious groups that receive federal funds to use sexual orientation as grounds for hiring and firing, as some demanded.

The result was a split-the-baby solution that largely pleased Obama’s gay rights supporters while mollifying some religious critics and leaving enough ambiguity to blunt the opposition of more hard-line foes.

“If President Obama were an Olympic diver, he would have just scored very high for his flawless performance of a double flip,” wrote National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters.

It’s still unclear whether this compromise will help the White House avoid another costly controversy over religious freedom just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled against the administration’s contraception mandate in the Hobby Lobby case.

President Obama on July 21, 2014, signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama said during a speech before the signing that the federal government would no longer subsidize discrimination.

President Obama on July 21, 2014 signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama said during a speech before the signing that the federal government would no longer subsidize discrimination. Public domain image by White House Live

But initial reactions to Monday’s executive order indicated the issue may not necessarily become another flashpoint in the culture wars.

For example, Michael Wear, a former White House official who served as a liaison to the evangelical community, said he was “encouraged” that the president’s action both advanced LGBT rights and respected “the religious identity of organizations serving our nation in partnership with the federal government.”

Earlier this month, Wear helped organize a letter signed by a range of religious leaders that urged Obama to expand the religious exemption when he issued his executive order. Although Obama rejected that option, Wear said the outcome “was precisely the hope and request of our letter to the president.”

That view was echoed by another signatory, Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, who said the White House “has left open a path that religious groups can work with.”

A separate letter from more than 100 liberal religious leaders, sent to Obama a week later, had taken a different tack by urging the president not to expand the religious exemption to allow discrimination against LGBT workers by faith groups who take federal dollars.

Those signers were generally pleased with Monday’s decision, though many were dismayed that Obama left the Bush-era exemption intact.

“No forms of discrimination should be supported with the taxpayer dime, period,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Some of Obama’s conservative foes were either noticeably silent or their criticisms were somewhat hedged. That’s because Obama maintained the Bush-era exemption, and because “we don’t know the full implications of this executive order,” as Russell Moore, the public policy point man for the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement.

Moore and others were certainly not thrilled with Obama’s move — “I am disappointed that this administration persistently violates the freedom of conscience for religious organizations,” he said — but there was a sense that Obama had found a workable compromise, at least on this particular issue.

Don’t expect the relative quiet to presage a wider truce, however.

A bill to bar bias against LGBT employees in nearly all workplaces, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, has passed the Senate but is stalled in the House with little prospect of success.

Some gay rights supporters have withdrawn their support for the bill because they say its religious exemption is too broad, while gay rights opponents argue that the protections for LGBT workers aren’t needed and could still infringe on religious freedom.

As Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy for the center-left think tank Third Way, told The Atlantic: “The religious exemption debate has now been polarized to the point where people are saying, ‘All or nothing.'”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

17 Comments

  1. The Great God Pan

    “The result was a split-the-baby solution…”

    It’s amusing to note that a “split-the-baby decision” is now considered a good thing. In the myth, King Solomon does not actually intend for the baby to be split in two. That’s kind of the whole point.

    But I guess Compromise Is King these days, and we’re all happy with our half of a baby.

    • Very true. It feels like it too.

      Politicians work so hard trying to appeal to their bases and Americans are so divided about everything that we end up with policies that are more like half of a dead baby than like anything with potential for bringing America happiness and prosperity.

    • The point is that Gibson is wrong again. What a tool the man is. Obviously, a cadre of ultra liberal Christians will do whatever their master (Obama) tells them to do. Real Christians are aghast at this renewed attempt to force them to adopt Obama’s religious views.

      • “Real Christians” who evidently hate the notion of constitutional liberties such as equal protection under the law. You may call them real Christians but they are hardly real Americans.

      • Homophobia is not a “religious view,” it is a mental disorder, and it is rejected by many more than these Christian and Jewish denominations who are marrying same gender American couples in the 19 US States where their Freedom Of Religion is respected:

        Affirming Pentecostal Church International, Alliance of Christian Churches, Anointed Affirming Independent Ministries, The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Community of Christ, Conservative Judaism, Ecumenical Catholic Church, Ecumenical Catholic Communion, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Anglican Church In America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Global Alliance of Affirming Apostolic Pentecostals, Inclusive Orthodox Church, Moravian Church Northern Province, Metropolitan Community Church, Old Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Progressive Christian Alliance, Reconciling Pentecostals International, Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, Reformed Anglican Catholic Church, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Unitarian Universalist Church, United Church of Christ, Unity Church

        It’s deceptive of anti-gays to claim all Christians share the anti-gays’ desire to mess with the lives of LGBT Americans and prevent them from earning a living.

  2. Next step on the Progressive agenda…Remove religion’s protection against discrimination, which judging by the reaction of some Progressives after the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS ruling, its around the corner.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    Camino bound, Sept 2014
    DHS

    • You don’t have a religious right of discrimination. Whatever protection you benefitted from, came from treating the 14th Amendment like toilet paper.

      It isn’t coming around the corner. it’s been heading your way for the last century.

  3. GO Obama!!! Based on a comment above I’m an “unreal” Christian who believes in the separation of church and state. EVERYBODY deserves basic civil and human rights. And I agree wuth the leaders say that federal government should not have contracts with religious organizations that discriminate against the LGBT community

    Although for Evangelical Christians this is a moral issue about sex and sexuality they don’t seem to apply this logic to all whom they consider immoral. Adulterers are not discriminated against… The sexually promiscuous are not discriminated against… Those who are full of greed are not discriminated against…those who have perpetual rage and anger are not discriminated against… They all have basic human and civil rights as they should have.

    • ALSO…of course Christians and all other religious groups should not have to hire against their religious beliefs… They just shouldn’t get government contracts.

      • Larry M,
        THANK YOU! I have said/written the same thing several times since this hit the news. It is amazing that many people expect to get government contracts even though they discriminate against the LGBT community, who also pay taxes that fund these contracts. The hypocrisy is astounding.

    • Thank you for your support, Larry M. You are protecting your own freedom and equality as well, since anti-gays want to tell you how to live and what to believe just the same. Anti-gays have not been denied any rights, they have just had their hand slapped–okay, slapped A LOT–by the courts, and now television comics routinely make jokes about anti-gays that make studio audiences explode in laughter.

  1. […] Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said the order respected “the religious identity” of organizations partnering with the federal government, while Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, said the White House “has left open a path that religious groups can work with,” Religion News Service reported. […]

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