LGBT rights advocates celebrated Monday's news that President Obama is now committed to taking one step more toward a more inclusive America by signing an executive order in the near future extending employment discrimination protection to LGBT employees of federal contractors and subcontractors (approximately 28 million total workers fall in that category). Not only did the announcement fail to detail when the order would be handed down, it lacked other specifics that would normally accompany such an announcement. It is those details, especially as it relates to the scope of a religious exemption for employers, that will determine just how big a step forward the action truly represents.
In negotiations leading to its comfortable U.S. Senate passage, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act's exemption for religious employers became so broad that key groups committed to expanding LGBT rights decided it had moved beyond compromise to capitulation. Not only did that exemption completely exempt most religiously affiliated educational institutions, it also would have allowed employers with ties to religious organizations to require employees to abide by strict religious tenets. For instance, a religiously affiliated health clinic could choose to require all nurses to follow a set of religious tenets including a bar on involvement in a same-sex relationship. While protecting core religious liberties is a crucial part of the First Amendment, such religious exemptions have never been used to drive such a hole through civil rights legislation for employees in non-ministerial positions. Knowing that any ENDA that could pass the House of Representatives would not improve, this has left many civil rights groups less than enthusiastic about the passage of a law that would, at least in name, cover all employers.
With the announcement that the Obama administration will move forward with an executive order covering contractors and subcontractors, the battle now turns to the scope of its religious exemption. Activists for LGBT rights are turning their attention to lobbying for limiting the exemption to cover only employees in roles involving the teaching of religion or governance of religious institutions. On the other hand, conservatives working to limit the impact of an executive order hope that a pro-employer Supreme Court ruling in the forthcoming Hobby Lobby case will make the Obama administration gun-shy about narrowing the religious exemption so sharply. The avoidance of details in Monday's announcement means that lobbying from both sides will be intense in the coming weeks.
Along with the demise of the ban on gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the military and major advances in marriage equality (through the courts and through expansive federal recognition of marriages), clear action on equality in the workplace is seen as "the third leg of the stool" that is Obama's transformative record on LGBT issues. The breadth of the religious exemption in the executive order will tell us just how solid or wobbly that leg is and will set a vitally important precedent for a future passage of a federal law covering all employers.
Last Friday brought the news of the passing of longtime radio newsman Ron Breeding, who made important contributions in making public radio in Central Arkansas a real force in newsgathering. Health challenges had made Ron unable to continue work several years back and they led to his death at a young age, 54.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Ron on both KUAR's political coverage as well as on Arkansas Week.
Ron was a master of radio news. Moreover, in a media market where the close relationships between journalists and those whom they cover sometimes create an impediment to aggressive journalism, he was at his best in asking the tough questions of politicians. Because Ron's heyday in the news business overlapped with Mike Huckabee's governorship, Huckabee received the lion's share of Ron's fair but persistent questioning. The thin-skinned Huckabee's reaction to them showed that, whatever the governor's significant political skills, playing on the national stage was going to be a struggle for him. In his 2008 presidential campaign and in the years since, national observers of Huckabee have experienced what Ron Breeding had helped Arkansans see for years before by simply doing a journalist's job so well.
In all his work, Ron made Arkansas government and politics better. The continued good work of the reporters at KUAR serves as his legacy.