White House

By Cherilyn Crowe 

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty continues to advocate that taxpayer funds should not be used in a way that advances or promotes religion, and that fundamental fairness requires protecting against discrimination in government-funded positions. Two recent BJC efforts include contacting the president about an impending executive order and calling for an end to a policy put in place by the Bush administration.

When Congress did not advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act this summer, President Barack Obama indicated an interest in increasing non-discrimination protections for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He announced plans to do so through an executive order that would pertain to employees of federal contractors.

Following the announcement, the administration was lobbied heavily by organizations regarding whether the discrimination ban should include an exemption for religious groups that contract with the federal government. While some called for an exemption, the BJC joined almost 100 other groups in sending a letter to the president to ask for just the opposite.

“When a religiously affiliated organization makes the decision to request a taxpayer-funded contract with the federal government, it must play by the same rules as every other federal contractor,” according to the letter. It also noted that, regardless of the protected class, no organization — religious or otherwise — that hires employees with taxpayer funds should be exempt from laws regarding the use of those funds.

“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished values, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character,” the letter said. “It guarantees us the freedom to hold any belief we choose and the right to act on our religious beliefs within certain limits. It does not, however, provide organizations the right to discriminate using taxpayer dollars.”

President Obama signed the executive order July 21, and it did not contain a religious exemption. It amended Executive Order 11246, first issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected categories for federal contractors. Additionally, it expanded the federal government’s existing employment non-discrimination protections for its own employees to include “gender identity.”

At the signing ceremony, Obama said, “America’s federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people.”

Executive Order 11246 has been amended on other occasions since it was issued, notably by President George W. Bush. In 2002, he issued an amending executive order to exempt religious organizations that contract with the government from the prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of religion.

The BJC has repeatedly called upon Obama to rescind the Bush amendment to Executive Order 11246, but it was left intact as the anti-discrimination provisions were expanded.

In June, the BJC spoke out against another Bush-era policy that allows for government-funded religious discrimination. When the Department of Justice released a document that said, based on a 7-year-old official policy memo, faith-based organizations “may prefer co-religionists for employees in programs funded by covered grants” if they meet certain criteria, the BJC joined 89 other groups in sounding the alarm. The coalition sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to request that the DOJ withdraw the 2007 memo establishing that policy, which interprets the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as overriding all non-discrimination laws.

Signed by the BJC and many other groups that led in the fight to pass RFRA, the letter to Holder noted that “RFRA was intended to provide protection of free exercise rights,” and it was “not intended to create blanket exemptions to non-discrimination laws.”

At press time for Report from the Capital, no action had been taken on the policy interpreting RFRA.

 The BJC has long supported the role of religious organizations in partnering with the government to provide needed services in ways that advance governmental interests but do so without the threat of government-sponsored religion. The organization will continue to pressure the administration to ensure that government funds cannot be used to discriminate based on religion.

From the July/August 2014 Report From the Capital. Click here to read the next article.