Does This Really Violate Religious Freedom?

Does This Really Violate Religious Freedom?
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One test for whether someone is actually raising an objection on principle is to see what the reaction was at other times when the principle was violated. By that measure, some of those challenging an executive order signed last week by President Obama are coming up a little bit short.

The order banned federal discrimination against gay or transgendered people. And it was condemned by some American religious leaders as an unprecedented infringement on religious freedom. But is that so?

A Fox News headline put it this way: "Obama's LGBT Executive Order endangers religious liberty." As columnist Todd Stearns explained it:

"The executive order would prevent Christian and other religious organizations with federal contracts from requiring workers to adhere to the tenets of their religious beliefs."

Stearns quotes Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council: "If religious organizations cannot require that their employees conduct themselves in ways consistent with the teachings of their faith -- then, essentially, those organizations are unable to operate in accordance with their faith."

The ban extends to contractors doing business with the government. The lone exemption is for religious organizations acting religiously. So a church running a federally-funded program, could, for instance, fire a pastor for violating behaviors prohibited by doctrine. But not an accountant in the same program.

The kinds of restrictions against some religious beliefs included in the new order are hardly unprecedented, however. And those raising the "religious freedom" objection now haven't been making the same claim against other executive orders that ban discrimination but do not mention sexual orientation. In fact, Obama's new order amends two of those orders.

Executive Order 11246, signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibits contrators from discriminating with "regard to race, creed, color, or national origin." Executive Order 11478, signed in 1979 by President Richard Nixon, covers discrimination "because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, or age."

Neither offers the kinds of exemptions that some conservative religious leaders are asking of Obama today. And yet, these orders also violate what the U.S. Supreme Court recently called the "sincerely held religious beliefs" of at least some American citizens.

For one example, consider the Christian Identity movement. Members of this branch of Christianity say they have a sincere religious belief that God chose "the White, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and kindred people to be God's true, literal Children of Israel" and that Jews are the spawn of Satan.

Are there any members of the Christian Identity movement who own businesses that contract with the government? If there are, surely they would be prohibited by these orders from discriminating against Jewish employees and employees not of the "White, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and kindred people."

Here's another example. Some Christian denominations believe that women should not be in positions of leadership -- and not just within the church. The Rev. John Piper is a Southern Baptist leader often quoted on this topic. He's used the role of a drill sergeant as an example of what he sincerely believes the Bible prohibits for women:

"I don't think a woman ought to be doing that to a man because it's direct, it's forceful, it's authoritative, it compromising something about the way a man and a woman were designed by God to relate."

His principle applies to any situation where a woman is giving a direct order to a man. I have no reason to doubt that his position is sincere, nor that he feels it is rooted in his understanding of his faith.

Southern Baptists are considerably more numerous than members of Christian Identity. Including, no doubt, owners of businesses that do business with the federal government. Under those orders, and for many decades, such companies would not have been allowed to discriminate against women. With no religious exemption offered.

If the objection to Obama's order is a matter of principle -- that presidential orders should not infringe upon the sincerely held religious beliefs of federal contractors -- it shouldn't matter whether or not one agrees with those sincere beliefs. In fact, a pretty good argument could be made that defending unpopular or unpleasant beliefs is even more important than standing up for those less controversial.

That's not a hypothetical. Some of the most important legal protections for religious expression in America have been carved out by faith groups whose beliefs would be considered objectionable by most Americans. Jehovah's Witnesses brought the case that established the right of children not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Members of the same denomination filed cases that helped establish everyone's right to hold religious meetings in a public park and establishing that cities cannot require a license of people who are selling or distributing religious material.

Those are matters of broad principle, with implications that don't depend on any specific bit of doctrine or belief. Religious leaders from many faith backgrounds have weighed in on these issues.

But if there's been any recent objection to those long-standing executive orders about discrimination by the religious leaders weighing in on Obama's newest order, I'm not finding it. Which makes it look like the new objections are less about the principle of religious freedom and more about specific beliefs about sexual orientation.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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