It comes as no surprise that religious groups have called on President Barack Obama to exempt them from any executive order that would ban discrimination of gays and lesbians by companies that do business with the government. This is one of the predictable consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court's wrongheaded opinion that exempts closely held companies from providing health coverage that covers contraceptives if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. The court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case has emboldened conservatives who seek to elevate their personal religious beliefs above the rights of others. The Obama administration should not waver in its commitment to stamp out discrimination against all Americans, regardless of its source.
In a closely watched case, the Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, a for-profit chain of crafts stores, in a 5-4 ruling that cited a federal religious freedom law in declaring that closely held companies could avoid complying with Affordable Care Act regulations that require that health plans cover contraception. While the court's majority argued the decision was narrowly drawn, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a stinging dissent that the majority opinion was a "decision of startling breadth." The next day, a religious group sent a letter to the president asking that he weaken his commitment to providing protection for gay and lesbian workers employed by federal contractors. The group wants the president to establish a "robust religious exemption" for companies that do not support homosexuality. The letter is signed by conservative Christian heavyweights such as Rick Warren, the bestselling author and megachurch pastor who delivered the invocation at Obama's first inauguration.
President Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1998 that protects federal employees who are homosexuals from workplace discrimination. Obama is right to plan to close the gap and extend the same protections to the employees of federal contractors. The order would protect an estimated 14 million workers in the 29 states that don't currently have bans on discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers.
Not all religious groups support seeking an exemption from protections for gay workers. But those that do have stretched the religious freedom argument too far. Granting their request would open the door for all manner of legalized bigotry and witch hunts. How, for example, would a company determine an employee's sexual orientation? One person's religious liberties should not trample upon another's freedoms, particularly when they involve personal choices that have little to do with whether or not an employee can do the job at hand.
The Obama administration should remain focused on what is a clear directive from the Constitution, to protect the rights of all Americans, not just those with widely accepted religious beliefs and lifestyles.