Has President Obama managed to thread the needle on gay rights and religious freedom, as my colleague David Gibson suggests? Even as federal religiously affiliated contractors are forbidden to deny employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, they are free to to employ only their co-religionists.
As a matter of principle, it would have been nice if the president had offered some explanation for his Solomonic distinction. All we have–for the first time–is a bald affirmation of George W. Bush’s permission for faith-based organizations to discriminate religiously when hiring employees to perform government services with public funds. How come, Harvard Law grad?
Politically, the signs were that the compromise would not ruffle the liberal base, which seemed overjoyed that, despite the pleas of some religious moderates, no exceptions were made to the prohibition on gender discrimination. Even Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the leading opponent of the religious preference exception, kept his peace.
On the right, the initial reaction was muted, no doubt out of relief that there would be no belated campaign to live up to Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to do away with the Bush permission. But the Catholic bishops harshed the mellow, saying that the executive order was “unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed.” Ignoring the good news on co-religionist employment, they stressed “the possibility of exclusion from federal contracting if their employment policies or practices reflect religious or moral objections to extramarital sexual conduct.”
Under the circumstances, here’s the kind of situation that could be in the offing. Let’s say your local Catholic Charities has a Catholic employee working in a federally funded program who marries her same-sex partner. When this becomes known, the bishop excommunicates the employee, whereupon she is fired from her job not because of religious objections to her “lifestyle” but because, under the Bush permission, Catholic Charities is entitled to engage in faith-based employment discrimination–and she’s not a Catholic in good standing.
The employee sues. What’s the Obama position?