To many liberals, however, Hobby Lobby sent the opposite message: that religious exemptions were a potentially dangerous new wedge for cultural conservatives seeking to impose discriminatory policies. Gay-rights groups lobbied against including an exemption in the executive order. They were joined by a large group of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and interfaith leaders, who wrote their own letter to the White House: “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,” they wrote.
The letter also asked Obama to undo a 2002 order allowing discrimination on the basis of religion. That order had been issued by George W. Bush in order to allow more religious nonprofits to get federal funding for social services.
As the debate raged in the pages of publications like Christianity Today and The Advocate, supporters of the exemption pointed out that what they were seeking was only what ENDA would have allowed. On July 8, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center announced they would no longer support ENDA as long as it included the religious exemption. “Given the types of workplace discrimination we see increasingly against LGBT people, together with the calls for greater permission to discriminate on religious grounds that followed immediately upon the Supreme Court’s decision last week in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it has become clear that the inclusion of this provision is no longer tenable,” their joint statement said.
It was a sudden and shocking development for a bill that had previously been one of the groups’ top policy goals. The Gay & Lesbian Task Force even called on Obama to veto ENDA if it reached his desk with the exemption language included.
Other gay-rights voices urged caution. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights organization, said it still supported ENDA but would fight for a narrower religious exemption in the bill. Third Way issued a memo titled “Don’t Abandon ENDA Over Its Religious Exemption,” noting that even with the exemption, the bill would represent huge progress and ensure protection for the vast majority of currently vulnerable LGBT workers.
Over the past decade, a growing partnership between gay-rights groups and religious leaders has been instrumental to the advancement of gay rights, both in terms of policy and in social acceptance. The partnership was mutually beneficial: Churches’ image benefited from showing a more tolerant face to the world, while gay-rights campaigners benefited from showing they weren’t opposed to faith. “I hope the larger progressive community is beginning to understand that we need people of faith for all of our struggles,” Alan van Capelle, who helped get gay-marriage passed in New York as head of the Empire State Pride Agenda, told me last year. “Once they are organized, they are an incredibly powerful force for change."