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Momentum Continues to Build for Narrowing ENDA's Religious Exemption

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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May 15, 2013

The momentum behind efforts – strongly supported by the ACLU – to narrow the current sweeping, unprecedented religious exemption in ENDA continues to build. As it stands, ENDA’s religious exemption – which would extend far beyond churches, synagogues, and mosques – could provide a blank check to engage in employment discrimination against LGBT people. It effectively gives a stamp of legitimacy to LGBT discrimination that our civil rights laws have never given to discrimination based on an individual’s race, sex, national origin, age, or disability.

On Saturday, The New York Times published a powerful editorial on the need for action at the federal level to address workplace discrimination against LGBT people. The editorial rightly urged Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and President Obama to sign an executive order barring companies that contract with the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – a step the ACLU has consistently described as the single most important action that President Obama could take on his own over the course of his entire second term to address the impact of employment discrimination against LGBT people.

The editorial also joined an earlier one in the Los Angeles Times in making clear that ENDA’s religious exemption “is far too broad and needs to be scaled back.” To quote the New York Times editorial:

…the exemption – extending well beyond just houses of worship to hospitals and universities, for example, and encompassing medical personnel, billing clerks and others in jobs that are not directly involved in any religious function – amounts to a license to engage in the discrimination that ENDA is meant to remedy.

In addition, on Monday, I was pleased to join Michelangelo Signorile on his radio show on Sirius OutQ to discuss why ENDA’s religious exemption must be narrowed. I discussed how, as LGBT people are gaining greater equality under the law, opponents are increasingly arguing that their religious beliefs entitle them to be given special authorization to break the law and discriminate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Religious liberty is one of our nation’s most cherished values, but it is not a license to discriminate. The LGBT community and those who advocate for LGBT people need to be vigilant in opposing these efforts to discriminate.

Prominent editorials in respected newspapers and radio discussions that reach LGBT people across the country are very helpful in laying a foundation for getting ENDA’s religious exemption narrowed. As more and more people come to understand the breadth of this exemption and the employment discrimination it could sanction, it will be become increasingly clear that it does not belong in the most important, longest-sought LGBT non-discrimination bill in Congress.

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