Religious and civic leaders urged President Barack Obama to include a religious exemption in the planned White House executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a July 1 letter, the group of 14 faith leaders said they agreed with the idea of "banning discrimination" but they also asked that an "extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need."
The letter stressed the importance of a religious exemption in the planned executive order "disqualifying organizations" that do not hire lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans from receiving federal contracts.
"This religious exemption would be comparable to what was included in the Senate version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which passed the Senate with a strong, bipartisan vote," it said.
The letter pointed out that a religious exemption "would not guarantee that religious organizations would receive contracts. Instead, a religious exemption would simply maintain that religious organizations will not be automatically disqualified or disadvantaged in obtaining contracts because of their religious beliefs."
The letter's signers, included Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America; Stephan Bauman, president and CEO of the World Relief, run by the National Association of Evangelicals; Senior Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California; and Kathy Dahlkemper, a former member of Congress who is currently county executive of Erie County, Pennsylvania.
They said an executive order that does not include a religious exemption will "significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government."
"In a concrete way, religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity. When the capacity of religious organizations is limited, the common good suffers," they added.
The writers said their concern went beyond a "direct financial impact on religious organizations" stressing that the nation must "find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability."
The chairmen of four committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops June 20 issued a statement expressing concern about the expected order.
They reiterated the objections they initially raised with the Senate version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, stating: "We say again now, as we said in connection with the Senate bill and have said many times before, that we oppose any unjust discrimination against any person on any grounds."
"We intend to review the details of the executive order carefully once it is available, in order to assess whether it serves the dignity of the human person and the common good," the statement said.
According to The Associated Press, the White House has not provided details about the executive order but some advocates say it will likely be similar to an order President Bill Clinton signed in 1998 that barred the federal government from firing workers for being gay and lesbian. Activists also said Obama's expected executive will likely include language specifically referring to gender identity.
The letter from religious and civic leaders referred to differing views on same-sex marriage, pointing out that Obama, in his first presidential campaign, withheld support for same-sex marriage, saying he believed marriage is a "sacred union" between a man and a woman.
"You justified withholding your support for same-sex marriage, at least in part, by appealing to your Christian faith. Yet you still believed you could serve your country, all Americans, as president," they said. "Similarly, some faith-based organizations' religious identity requires that their employees share that identity. We still believe those organizations can serve their country, all Americans, in partnership with their government and as welcome members of the American family."
"Religious organizations, because of their religious faith, have served their nation well for centuries, as you have acknowledged and supported time and time again," the signers said. "We hope that religious organizations can continue to do so, on equal footing with others, in the future.
"A religious exemption in your executive order on LGBT employment rights would allow for this, balancing the government's interest in protecting both LGBT Americans, as well as the religious organizations that seek to serve in accordance with their faith and values."