Clergy divided over religious exemption to discrimination ban in upcoming executive order

President Obama’s decision to ban federal contractors from discriminating against gays raises tough questions for faith communities on both sides of the issue.

By Bob Allen

Clergy lined up on both sides in letters asking President Obama to both include and remove a religious exemption from his upcoming executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

More than 100 faith leaders sent a letter to the president July 8 arguing that public dollars should not be used to sanction discrimination.

“An executive order that allows for religious discrimination against LGBT people contradicts the order’s fundamental purpose, as well as the belief shared by more and more Americans every day, which is that LGBT people should not be treated as second-class citizens,” the letter said. “An exception would set a terrible precedent by denying true equality for LGBT people, while simultaneously opening a Pandora’s Box inviting other forms of discrimination.”

Signatures on the letter include Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at Iliff School of Theology who writes commentaries for ABPnews/Herald; Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance; Robin Lunn, executive director of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists; and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

brianmclarenOne of the signers, evangelical author Brian McLaren, said those old enough to remember hearing religious arguments for segregation know that just because an argument is based on religious tradition doesn’t mean it is good.

“That’s why so many of us who believe in religious liberty don’t want religious liberty used as a smokescreen to aid, abet, and protect prejudice,” said McLaren, head of the CANA Initiative, a collective of faith-engaged organizations, individuals, institutions and networks to support and encourage what is often called Emergence Christianity.

The week before, faith leaders including Joel Hunter, one of Obama’s spiritual advisers; Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.; and Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, penned a letter urging the president to include a religious exemption in the planned executive order.

The July 1 letter said the extension of protection for one group should not come at the expense of faith communities whose hiring policies arise from their religious beliefs.

“Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times,” the letter said.