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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 4 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 27
Hobby Lobby fallout: Religious leaders ask Obama to exempt them from executive order barring discrimination against LGBT employees
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Hobby Lobby fallout: Religious leaders ask Obama to exempt them from executive order barring discrimination against LGBT employees

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Within days of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, religious groups sought to expand on the court's ruling by claiming a right for employers to discriminate against LGBT employees on religious grounds.

On June 30, a slim 5-4 majority of the high court held that some for-profit corporations can claim a First Amendment religious exemption from provisions of the Affordable Care Act. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the court majority, 'in a decision of startling breadth,' would allow corporations to opt out of almost any law that they find 'incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,' including laws against discrimination in the workplace.

As if to prove Ginsburg's argument true, a group of religious leaders sent a letter to President Obama urging him to include a religious exemption in his forthcoming executive order barring federal contactors from discriminating against LGBT employees.

'We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need,' the letter states.

Among those signing the letter were Fr. Larry Snyder, the CEO of Catholic Charities, and Stephen Schneck, the head of the Institute for Religion & Democracy (IRD). Catholic Charities has in the past said it would close down its operations if forced to recognize same-sex marriages or place orphans with Gay or Lesbian adoptive parents. IRD denounced the United Methodist Church in March for refusing to discipline clergy that conducted same-sex marriages.

Not all the signers were from the far right, however. The main organizer of the religious leaders was Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for the 2012 Obama campaign. Other signers were two members of Catholics for Obama, and three former members of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

'This is not an antagonistic letter by any means,' Wear told Atlantic Monthly, but 'the administration does have a decision to make whether they want to recalibrate their approach to some of these issues.'

Court says discrimination still illegal
The administration has not yet issued a public response to the letter, but University of Pennsylvania law professor and Obama legal advisor Tobias Wolff issued a statement July 2 saying unequivocally that 'Hobby Lobby in fact rejects the argument that religious exercise can be an excuse for invidious discrimination.'

Quoting from Justice Alito's majority opinion, Wolff points to language he believes affirms the court's continued commitment to uphold anti-discrimination laws.

'The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction,' Alito writes. 'Our decision today provides no such shield. The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.'

On that basis, Wolff insists that 'it is important that advocates and leaders strongly push out the message that the Hobby Lobby decision strongly supports the enforceability of anti-discrimination laws, even in the face of religious exemption arguments. Hobby Lobby represents a vindication of the principle that anti-discrimination protections should trump religious objections in the workplace.'

LGBT groups worried
In spite of Wolff's optimism, LGBT rights groups expressed fears that the ruling might be used against the LGBT community.

'Today's majority ruling disregards decades of case law that drew a protective line between free religious expression and religious dominance of others,' the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) said in a statement. 'It is a radically dangerous decision that invites more misguided actions contrary to essential protections for employees, customers and the public.'

'A business owner's religious objection to a worker's same-sex spouse or a customer's LGBT identity is not acceptable grounds for discrimination. It is more important than ever that states and Congress enact strong, clear nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.'

'HRC remains hopeful that the Court's limitation in this case will be extended to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community,' the group said in a statement. 'We will remain vigilant in the event business owners attempt to use this decision to justify other forms of discrimination, including against LGBT people.'

The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) noted that 'the majority recognized that even under its sweeping new rule, corporations cannot rely on claims of religious liberty to evade non-discrimination laws. That limitation is extremely important and means that employers cannot exploit today's decision to justify non-compliance with laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBT people and other vulnerable groups, but we will need to be vigilant to make sure that principle is respected and enforced.'

'In this case, the owners happen to be deeply Christian; one wonders whether the case would have come out differently if a Muslim-run chain business attempted to impose Sharia law on its employees,' activist George Takei wondered.

'Once the law starts permitting exceptions based on 'sincerely held religious beliefs' there's no end to the mischief and discrimination that will ensue. Indeed, this is the same logic that certain restaurants and hotels have been trying to deploy to allow proprietors to refuse service to gay couples.'

Takei called for a boycott of 'any for-profit business, including Hobby Lobby, which chooses to impose its religious beliefs on its employees.'

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