Liberals Now Deeply Divided Over Religious Freedom and Homosexuality

Gay rights advocates march by the White House in Washington, on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009. Thousands of gay rights supporters marched Sunday from the White House to the Capitol, demanding that President Barack Obama keep his promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military and work to end discrimination against gays.
Gay rights advocates march by the White House in Washington, on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009. Thousands of gay rights supporters marched Sunday from the White House to the Capitol, demanding that President Barack Obama keep his promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military and work to end discrimination against gays. | (Photo: AP Images / Jacquelyn Martin)

Should those who disagree with liberal views on homosexuality have the freedom to express and live according to those beliefs in civil society? Liberals are now deeply divided over this question.

This split was seen most recently over a debate about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

ENDA, a bill that would prevent workplace discrimination based upon sexual preference and gender identity, passed the U.S. Senate last year. Speaker of the House John Boehner has said the House will not vote on the measure. President Barack Obama recently announced that he will issue an ENDA-type executive order that would only apply to employers with government contracts.

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Liberals are divided on whether ENDA, the Senate bill or the executive order, should include an exemption for religious groups.

Religious organizations contract with the federal government to provide services, such as aid to developing nations or prison programs. Some of these organizations require assent to a set of religious beliefs and behavior consistent with those beliefs as a condition of employment. As a result, they may not hire someone in a same-sex relationship. Without an exemption for religious employers, therefore, these groups may be forced to no longer provide those government services.

Religious exemptions are not unusual in American law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had one, for instance, related to non-discrimination in hiring and employment. These exemptions have been widely considered consistent with the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment.

The Senate bill, supported by every Democratic senator (except Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, who did not vote), included a religious exemption, which 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 the Senate's passage of ENDA was largely celebrated by gay rights groups at the time, there were some stirring of concern over extending the same religious exemption found in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The editors of The New York Times described the exemption as "terribly broad" because it included, not just houses of worship, but religious institutions like hospitals and colleges.

The exemption, they wrote, "would give a stamp of legitimacy to the very sort of discrimination the act is meant to end."

Debate among liberals over the religious exemption heightened over the past week. The American Civil Liberties Union and three other gay rights organizations announced they were withdrawing support for ENDA because of the religious exemption.

The bill already passed the Senate and it will not even be debated in the House. So what changed? Two things: 1) Obama's pending ENDA-like executive order, and 2) the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court said that closely held companies cannot be forced to pay for certain types of contraceptives in their employees' health insurance plans if it violates their religious convictions to do so. The Hobby Lobby case was not about gay rights, but the gay rights groups became concerned about the Court's recognition that religious freedom protections do not disappear when individuals start a corporation.

The Court's decision, the organizations wrote, led to their withdrawal of support for ENDA: "The Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby has made it all the more important that we not accept this inappropriate provision. Because opponents of LGBT equality are already misreading that decision as having broadly endorsed rights to discriminate against others, we cannot accept a bill that sanctions discrimination and declares that discrimination against LGBT people is more acceptable than other kinds of discrimination."

Other liberals, though, strongly encouraged Obama to include a religious exemption.

Michael Wear, who led the faith outreach for Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and worked in Obama's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote a letter to Obama, along with 13 other signers, encouraging him to include a religious exemption. Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of Catholics for Obama, also signed the letter.

"Without a robust religious exemption, like the provisions in the Senate-passed ENDA, this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom," they wrote.

Unlike the statement by the ACLU and other groups, Wear's letter was not in response to Hobby Lobby. The letter was being composed before the decision and would have been sent to Obama even if Hobby Lobby had lost.

A separate letter was sent by Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a liberal Evangelical organization, who also encouraged Obama to include a religious exemption.

For some liberals, opposition to same-sex marriage and the belief that homosexual behavior is a sin is not the only punishable offense. Simply asking for religious freedom for those who hold those beliefs is also a punishable offense.

Wear's letter was also signed by D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a Christian college near Boston. As a result of his signing of that letter, the mayor of Salem, Massachusetts ended a contract the city had with the college and the college's accrediting agency will be investigating whether to end the college's accreditation.

While liberalism has historically been appreciative of pluralism and toleration, we are now seeing the rise of "dogmatic liberalism," Damon Linker, a liberal columnist wrote Friday for The Week.

"The decline is especially pronounced on a range of issues wrapped up with religion and sex," he said. "For a time, electoral self-interest kept these intolerant tendencies in check, since the strongly liberal position on social issues was clearly a minority view. But the cultural shift during the Obama years that has led a majority of Americans to support gay marriage seems to have opened the floodgates to an ugly triumphalism on the left."

Why the rise of intolerant, dogmatic liberalism? Linker argues it's related to a decline of religion.

"Human beings will be religious one way or another," he wrote. "Either they will be religious about religious things, or they will be religious about political things.

"With traditional faith in rapid retreat over the past decade, liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good."

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