ENDA, Religious Exemptions, and Why Non-Discrimination Matters

Most people do not believe this so let me open with a statement of fact – in most of the United States (and Pennsylvania) it is legal to fire someone or deny them a rental unit or service because they are LGBTQ.  It is legal. It doesn’t have anything to do with “right to work” and everything to do with a lack of non-discrimination protections.

Yesterday, six major national LGBTQ organizations announced that they are removing their support for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) because it is currently amended to offer religious groups more freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ people than any other piece of civil rights legislation.

So what does this mean?

First, protections for LGBTQ employees should be the same as for other protected groups – why is it not okay for a church to fire a clerk based on her race or marital status, but okay to do so based on her sexual orientation? That’s absurd.

Second, we learned from Arizona how Americans feel about religious exemptions.

Third, many local laws already exist. They work just fine. I’ve not heard a single incident where a faith based school or business collapsed because of these protections. Have you?

Tobias Barrington Wolfe, a law professor at U Penn has an excellent piece in The Nation laying out this issue

Federal law currently rejects the idea that there is some inherent connection between discrimination and religious belief. The only religious exemption contained in federal anti-discrimination law is a provision that is limited to the issue of religion itself. It allows religious organizations to maintain a workplace of co-religionists—to hire only people who share their religious background. No other forms of discrimination based on religious belief are permitted.

I also think this is an important idea to consider:

Whatever approach one takes, there is one principle that must always be respected: these exemptions must be defined in the same way for everyone. We cannot have one approach to religious exemptions for discrimination based on gender or disability and a different approach for discrimination based on race or sexual orientation. To do so would be to accept the idea that some types of equality are inherently at odds with religion. That dangerous argument has been misused many times in our history. The unequal treatment of women, racial segregation, even slavery itself—all have been justified by religious doctrine.

This is about fairness, fairness for all American workers but also fairness to the communities of faith. Do you want your government to presume that your faith community is inherently discriminatory? Of course not. That’s a prejudiced assumption. We’ve witnessed numerous times over the past decade when a denomination or a single church has changed their views.  Assuming religious beliefs are something monolithic that cannot exist within the structure of the United States civil society is a harmful idea. They exist fine. They follow all sorts of rules and guidelines and constraints and do just fine.

So far the organizations which have pulled support from ENDA as it currently is amended AND pushed the President not to amend the Executive Order (ENDA for federal contractors) are

 The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,
 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), 
Lambda Legal,
 National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR),
Transgender Law Center 
Pride at Work

Notably, the Human Rights Campaign remains steadfast in its support of ENDA. That’s not shocking. The reality is that ENDA won’t be voted on this session anyway so this might all just be posturing. The Executive Order is expected any day now so that’s another important piece. There is pressure on the President to add the same amendments.

What does this mean in Pennsylvania? Well, if your employer has a contract with the federal government, the Executive Order would impact your protections. More people would be covered than are now so that’s a good thing – if it remains free of the religious exemptions.

Pennsylvania does not have statewide protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. HB 300 is stuck in committee so for 70% of the Commonwealth, there is simply no protection in place. Could such an amendment rear its head in Pennsylvania? Of course. We are probably ripe for it, but to be amended – it has to get out of committee.

Nothing replaces a good grassroots games on the state and local level. Equality PA – our statewide rights group – put local organizers in place a year ago and I’m not really clear on what they’ve been doing. I don’t hear buzz about these issues in the community. I definitely hear the bloggers and the wonky types talking about it. I talk about it. But I”m sure they face an uphill battle as many people still don’t believe this is “a thing” and people are still wrapped up in marriage equality.

But here’s why I think Equality PA is making some headway. A week before Pride, two members of Repent Amarillo showed up at Community House church on the North Side. Community House is a liberal Presbyterian Congregation that houses the Judah Fellowship Congregation – an LGBTQ affirming community. And the pastor of Judah Fellowship is Shanea Leonard. Shanea happens to be an organizer for Equality PA.

It makes no sense that Repent Amarillo would pick a relatively small Presbyterian community tucked in the back of a neighborhood, a group that would not give them any of the engagement upon which they flourish.  It is my personal opinion that they went into a predominantly black neighborhood to spark racial tensions. They wanted to get the attention of the neighborhood residents.

I think they targeted Shanea and I also think that shows she’s making inroads. For the record, Repent Amarillo is the group that targeted Pridefest the past two years and has a slew of videos up to show off their handiwork.

Mind you, Repent Amarillo is not sitting down with Members of Congress to discuss policy, but they are part of the right-wing continuum of attack. They are also here to stay in Pittsburgh so we need to start having some serious discussion around religious exemptions and religious liberty legislation and what that means for most of us. This is a little dizzying – if you painted the image in my head right now, it would be a giant map with a thousand pins poked in the various spaces that converge on Pittsburgh.

So what to do, you ask? Get involved with Shanea Leonard’s work on the ground here in Western PA.

Repent Amarillo
Repent Amarillo on the North Side June 2014


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