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Civil rights groups, lawmakers step up pressure on Obama over executive order

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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AP (File)

AP (File)

Dozens of civil rights organizations and a group of Democratic lawmakers have signed letters this week asking President Barack Obama not to exempt “religiously affiliated contractors” from a planned executive order protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors.

The letters come as the debate over religious liberty intensifies in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and as Obama prepares to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against gay and transgender people.

Buzzfeed reports that 69 civil rights and other organizations, including the ACLU, the NAACP, Lambda Legal, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Center for Transgender Equality, signed a letter Tuesday asking Obama not to include a religious exemption in the order:

“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished values, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character. 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 dollar,” the letter states.

“We urge you to act to prohibit any discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion with taxpayer funds by all federal contractors, including religiously affiliated organizations.”

In another letter Tuesday, a group of 34 House Democrats led by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called on Obama to sign the order “as soon as possible without exemptions,” according to the Washington Blade.

“Creating a religious exemption for workplace discrimination would set a dangerous precedent for employees around the country. With this exemption, employers would be able to fire or refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity,” the letter states.

“Your action at the federal level must put a complete stop to these unfair and discriminatory workplace practices.”

Other signers of the letter include Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Until last month, Obama long resisted pressure to pursue an executive order for federal contractors in hopes that Congress would take more sweeping action banning anti-LGBT workplace discrimination nationwide.

A bill to accomplish that goal — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — passed the Senate last year with some Republican support, but has not been taken up by the GOP-controlled House.

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Last week, a half-dozen prominent LGBT rights advocacy groups which had been longtime ENDA supporters, announced that they were withdrawing their support because of its broad religious exemption.

The exodus was prompted in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case that said some businesses can, because of their owners’ religious beliefs, choose not to comply with the federal health care law’s requirement that contraception coverage be provided to workers at no extra charge.

That ruling did not address discrimination in workplace hiring and firing, but many gay rights activists have cited the case as a reason to be more aggressive in opposing religious exemptions that might disadvantage LGBT people.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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