- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2014

President Obama drew mixed reviews Monday for his order barring federal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, with advocacy groups praising the step but also expressing deep disappointment that the White House left in place a loophole for religious employers.

The executive order signed Monday extends protections for LGBT workers employed directly by the federal government or contractors doing business with the government. While it prohibits any explicit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by companies with religious ties, it also retains a George W. Bush-era provision allowing businesses to favor prospective employees of a given faith when making hiring decisions.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision that employers at closely-held corporations can decline to provide birth control to employees on the basis of religious freedom — a case that tested the constitutional limits of Obamacare — Monday’s order seems to be an attempt by the administration to a walk a fine line between eliminating discrimination while to some degree respecting the First Amendment rights of firms working with the federal government.

For that reason, the president’s action, while hailed as a step forward for LGBT rights, also has come under fire.

“While I wholeheartedly applaud the president’s action today, I am disappointed that he did not go further to undo the provisions that President George W. Bush signed allowing for religious organizations to discriminate against people of other religions in their hiring,” said Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, an organization that advocates for clear lines between religion and government. “It is my sincere hope that we can keep up this energy, maintain this momentum, as we continue the unfinished work of ending government-funded religious discrimination and protecting the rights of all LGBT workers in America.”

LGBT groups, Democrats on Capitol Hill and others have been pleading with Mr. Obama to take the action he did Monday. The White House maintained that it instead would prefer to see Congress pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit any explicit discrimination against LGBT workers by private companies, but also includes religious exemptions.

But even with those exemptions, the legislation has stalled, and the president said he acted unilaterally because it’s past time to ensure Americans aren’t unjustly punished.

“It doesn’t make much sense, but today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness they could lose their job. Not because of anything they do or fail to do but because of who they are — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And that’s wrong,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama’s order also has become a target for religious organizations, some First Amendment advocates and other critics.

Earlier this month, Rick Warren, the high-profile pastor of California’s Saddleback Church, joined with other faith leaders in pressing Mr. Obama to include in his order a blanket exemption for religious employers.

Such an exemption never materialized, and subsequently, some see Monday’s order as an assault on the First Amendment — the same complaints that surrounded Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

“A religious organization which is denied the power to require its employees to conduct their lives in a way consistent with the teachings of their faith is an organization which is being denied the right to exercise its religion, period,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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