No religious exemption from Obama order on LGBT workplace protections

The sidewalks are filled with rainbow flags as revelers celebrate Gay Pride.
The sidewalks are filled with rainbow flags as revelers celebrate Gay Pride.

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision may have opened the door to a number of potential horrors, but tarnishing President Obama’s legacy on LGBT equality won’t be one of them.

Bucking calls from more than a dozen high-profile faith leaders -- some his own allies -- Obama has decided to leave out a religious exemption in two upcoming executive orders regarding LGBT discrimination, the Associated Press reported Friday. One will extend workplace protections to transgender employees of the U.S. government. And the other will bar LGBT discrimination among all companies that do business with the U.S. government, a move anticipated to cover about a fifth of the national workforce.

Obama will sign both orders Monday, senior administration officials told Reuters. But absent from the order covering federal contractors will be any exemption for religious organizations in business with the government that wish to fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against their LGBT employees. Whatever their religious beliefs, all federal contractors will have to treat their employees equally, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The decision to leave out a religious exemption follows a controversial ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that affirmed the right of “closely held” corporations to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance provisions on religious grounds. In the case before the justices, Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based, evangelical-owned craft chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a small Mennonite-owned cabinet maker in Pennsylvania, were among 49 for-profit companies that claimed a religious objection to providing birth control coverage for their employees. The high court said those companies could be exempt from the health care law’s requirement.

Immediately after, many began to foresee the consequences -- not just for reproductive rights -- but for issues like workplace unionization and non-discrimination laws, which could all be weakened by the decision. One proponent of a failed religious freedom bill in Kansas felt confident that the ruling would help the effort to pass legislation allowing broad LGBT discrimination. And a day after the decision came down, a group of faith-leaders sent a letter to the president asking for a religious exemption in his forthcoming executive order barring such discrimination among federal contractors.

Michael Wear, who was the National Faith Vote Director for Obama’s 2012 campaign and one of the letter’s signatories, previously told msnbc it had “absolutely zero to do with Hobby Lobby.” But opponents thought the Supreme Court decision empowering religious exemptions may have provided some validation to Wear and his co-signers.

Whatever the motivation, however, President Obama ignored their request. The only exemption in the upcoming executive order will be for ministers, Reuters reported, not religious organizations. 

"We're so proud today of the decision made by the Obama Administration to resist the calls by a small number of right-wing conservatives to insert religious exemptions into civil rights protections,” said Heather Cronk, GetEQUAL director, in a statement. “While we will continue to press for full equality under the law for LGBTQ Americans, we’re thrilled with the announcement today and look forward to President Obama signing his name to an executive order on Monday that we can all be proud of."