Atheists Withdraw Support from Gay Rights Bill, Blame Hobby Lobby Decision

An atheist advocacy group has become the latest organization to drop its endorsement of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because of concerns over the religious exemption.

The legislation, meant as a federal measure to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, allows religious organizations, including colleges, churches, hospitals, and faith-based organizations, to remain exempt.

In a statement released last week, the Center of Inquiry explained that it had initially been "delighted" when the Senate approved ENDA 64-32 last November.

"But it has since become clear that any celebration was premature, as ENDA had one crucial, fatal crack. And that crack has been widened into a gaping chasm by the Supreme Court," Michael De Dora, the director of CFI's office of public policy wrote in a statement.

In explaining CFI's position, De Dora appeared to misunderstand ENDA's religious exemption. He explained that CFI had originally reluctantly tolerated the religious exemption because it still covered the vast majority of LGBT individuals. But he mistakenly wrote that it did not apply to for-profit corporations. CFI's position changed, De Dora argued, after the Supreme Court decided in Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius that closely-held organizations could use RFRA to deny their employees contraception on religious grounds.

"What this means is that not only would religiously affiliated non-profit outfits receive an exemption from the current version of ENDA — and they will no doubt use it — but for-profit corporations could conceivably seek and receive the religious exemption as well," he wrote. "Thus, the historic opportunity to expand protections against discrimination to LGBT individuals would likely provide little protection against discrimination for LGBT individuals, since as much — if not most — of the discrimination they face stems from religious objections."

However, the religious exemption in ENDA clearly covered certain corporations even before the Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

The exemption states: "This Act shall not apply to a corporation, association, educational institution or institution of learning, or society that is exempt from the religious discrimination provisions of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

While much of the statement appears to say that CFI's change in position is due to its desire to deny a religious exemption to for-profit corporations, at the end of the statement, De Dora writes that CFI would oppose ENDA with an exemption for religious non-profit corporations as well.

De Dora also referenced a letter spearheaded by former Obama administration employee, Michael Wear, and signed by other evangelical officials such as Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, Christianity Today Executive Editor Andy Crouch, and Q Ideas President Gabe Lyons, asking the president to apply the religious exemption to a forthcoming ENDA-type executive order covering federal contractors.

"LGBT Americans deserve full protection from unfair dismissal and discrimination, and it is unacceptable that a landmark piece of legislation designed to protect them from such actions could actually leave countless LGBT workers completely unprotected," he wrote. "We cannot and must not accept broad religious exemptions from prohibitions of discrimination in federal law simply to receive a sliver of equality. Indeed, such broad religious exemptions are a direct threat to true equality and a secular, constitutional government."

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center voiced their disapproval of the measure.

"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," read the statement.

"It would prevent ENDA from providing protections that LGBT people desperately need and would make very bad law with potential further negative effects. Therefore, we are announcing our withdrawal of support for the current version of ENDA," they added.