WASHINGTON — A progressive religious leader was rallying a group Wednesday and early Thursday to warn President Obama that if the executive order to protect LGBT workers' rights does not include a strong religious exemption, it could give "ammunition" to critics.
Sojourners president Jim Wallis urged a handful of religious leaders Wednesday afternoon to sign onto a letter to the president backing "a clear and strong religious exemption" to the executive order — an additional effort beyond the letter that former Obama adviser Michael Wear and others sent earlier this week.
This second letter has not been sent yet and Wallis, generally viewed as a progressive religious leader, told BuzzFeed it has been changed significantly from the Wednesday afternoon draft obtained by BuzzFeed — and now might not be sent at all.
"We believe that change in our churches is necessary in regard to welcoming LGBT persons and are committed to working on that," stated the draft of the letter obtained by BuzzFeed. "But we believe that government action in making those changes would be very counter-productive to our goals of change."
When contacted Thursday morning about the draft letter, Wallis initially said, "There are no letters that have been agreed to or signed on or anything at all."
In Wallis's email to a handful of people sent at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, however, he wrote that he drafted the letter after receiving "much feedback" from the recipients. He wrote that he wanted to "send it to the WH tomorrow by noon" — which would have been noon Thursday — and added, "Changes are hard to make on such a short time frame" but that he would "do whatever we can" in order to have the "key signatures" on the letter.
When pressed Thursday morning, Wallis said, "I'm not denying that we're in the process — I didn't deny anything — we're in the process of trying to find some helpful ways to express our concerns face-to-face and other ways with our friends in the White House, and I'm in regular conversation, at my request, with friends in the LGBT community about all of this. We're trying to help something privately and not taking public stances."
The letter was intended in some ways, Wallis said, to be a counterpoint to the Wear letter that some religious leaders and religious advisers to President Obama, including Rick Warren, had sent to the president. The distinction, Wallis said, being that his draft letter focused on support for LGBT rights, something he saw lacking in the other letter.
"I didn't think any of the letters that I saw from religious groups — I thought they were all very equivocal about LGBT equal protection in hiring, which I am not equivocal about," he said. "I didn't believe in those, I thought they were not nearly as supportive as I am and should be about equal protection."
Wallis announced support for marriage equality last year and has backed LGBT employment protections, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — the religious exemption of which has faced fire from some LGBT advocates in recent months. LGBT advocates have been pressing for an exemption in the executive order no broader than already existing exemptions in other similar orders.
Nonetheless, the Wallis draft letter — like the other religious letter — pressed for strong religious exemptions in the coming executive order, both because of the public perception of including religious exemptions and on principle.
"If religious exemptions are removed, withdrawn, or seriously cut back from those in place, like in ENDA, the perception will be that your administration is attacking religious freedom and liberty," the draft stated about perception. "While there is likely little you can do to win over some of the religious institutions and leaders who have been your critics, there are millions of Christians who are allied with you on many issues but would be lost if they perceived the balances of religious liberty were compromised."
Regarding the principle of religious exemptions, the draft stated, "Just as freedom of speech is only meaningful if it protects all viewpoints, ensuring religious liberty must be respected for churches and faith-based organizations who believe that heterosexual marriage is the biblical norm. And the state should not require faith-based organizations to violate those beliefs in order to receive government contracts or grants."
After the initial call Thursday morning, Wallis had a second call with BuzzFeed on Thursday afternoon, where he clarified his earlier remarks and backtracked on much of the draft letter's comments. He also made clear that his focus, when talking with White House officials, has been on other issues and that it was White House officials who approached him on this issue.
"I was trying to help the president and his team by sharing what I was hearing out there, and how we could find — if we could find — some good balances and some common ground that would achieve, as a top White House official said to me last week, could achieve the right balance between LGBT protections and respecting religious liberty. Both are goals that I have, that the president has, and that I think we have to find if we're going to go forward here," he said.
A White House spokesman did not respond Thursday afternoon to a request for confirmation about Wallis's involvement with the White House's process for considering any religious exemption to the executive order.
As to the letter itself, Wallis said Thursday afternoon, "The letter has not been finalized, it's not been signed, it's not been sent. And, what I was saying this morning — and I might have been clumsy, being surprised by your call — that letter is a conversation between people about whether we should say something in a private letter to just a few friends at the White House. That's all this is." He added that he may not even send it now because he "do[es]n't want to hurt the cause."
Explaining how the letter fits into his broader work, he explained, "I want to see a better relationship between the churches, the faith community, the LGBT people, who — as the letter says, have been terribly mistreated, over and over again, by the religious community. So, I don't want conflict over political issues to set back that agenda and just keep doing damage control."
Despite the language in the draft letter, Wallis said Thursday afternoon that he was not proposing any specific exemption in the draft, telling BuzzFeed, "I don't know the answer, and so I wasn't pressing a particular answer — because I don't know what the answer is."
After publication, White House spokesman Shin Inouye responded to BuzzFeed's request for information about Willis's involvement in the executive order's preparation, saying only, "I don't have any details to share about the specifics of an Executive Order. We continue to hear from interested groups on this issue."
The draft Wallis letter, as of Wednesday afternoon:
Dear Mr. President,
We are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We have prayed, worshiped, studied Scripture, and engaged spiritual questions with you. We are all also your friends. And we have worked together with you on matters of deep moral consequence for us as faith leaders which are also vital issues for the common good. On issues like poverty, hunger, immigration, racial justice, criminal justice, climate change, international aid, HIV and malaria funding, and much more, we have been your allies. We regard you not only as an ally on so many of these concerns, but as a fellow committed Christian, for whom we have not only respect, but sincere affection.
We are writing this private letter with regards to the Executive Order on discrimination against LGBT persons in federal contracts. We have questions about how this order will be worded, shaped, rolled out, and practiced in relationship to the faith community. In particular, we have concerns over the religious exemptions question which has become so understandably controversial.
We are in favor of non-discrimination protection of LGBT people—not only in federal contracts but throughout society. Many of us have endorsed the ENDA bill in the Senate. We have supported equal protection under the law for LGBT people and some of us support same-sex civil marriage as a part of that commitment to equal protection. So we share many of your goals.
Many of us are working to open our faith communities to both empathy and compassion for LGBT people, and to repent of the ways we have treated our gay brothers and sisters, and many of us appreciate the gifts of gay people in our organizations. And we are also in regular dialogue with LGBT people both inside and outside the faith community.
Yet we also have a strong commitment to religious liberty and believe that the issues of equal protection and religious freedom must be very carefully balanced. Some of us wrote to you about some similar issues regarding the initial HHS rulings on how contraception requirements for health care would be applied to religious communities and suggested the changes that we were very glad to see you make at that time. We believe that change in our churches is necessary in regard to welcoming LGBT persons and are committed to working on that. But we believe that government action in making those changes would be very counter-productive to our goals of change.
In particular, we are concerned about the real danger of handing the "tool" of religious liberty (a very legitimate issue) over to those who would use it against the LGBT community and your administration in pursuing equal protection. Faith-based organizations that have been trying to work on these issues internally would strongly react to the state telling them they must change their current beliefs publically—or no longer be eligible for federal contracts. Change is coming on the inside, but those changes could easily be reversed if they were perceived to be forced by the government.
Your allies in the progressive faith community also have strong convictions on religious liberty. We have had many experiences with governments around the world intruding upon the beliefs and practices of our global faith communities, and some of us in the faith community have engaged in civil disobedience in our own country. Despite our support for the positive role of government, we are still resistant to federal intrusion into the beliefs and practices of faith communities as a requirement of partnership; it is a creative tension we live with. And a conflict with your administration over this EO, if religious exemptions are reduced, would create many problems for the important work faith-based communities are doing in the world in partnership with the government—crucial work that you have been very supportive of.
If religious exemptions are removed, withdrawn, or seriously cut back from those in place, like in ENDA, the perception will be that your administration is attacking religious freedom and liberty. While there is likely little you can do to win over some of the religious institutions and leaders who have been your critics, there are millions of Christians who are allied with you on many issues but would be lost if they perceived the balances of religious liberty were compromised.
We are deeply concerned about the protections of religious liberty for the sake of the common good, and are willing to be as helpful as we can be about how these important balances are sensitively drawn. How can we pursue protection for LGBT people and protection of religious liberty at the same time?
We grieve over how our religious communities have often hurt LGBT people. But many of us are working to change these behaviors and are working with allies in the LGBT community to do that. We would much rather be making forward progress than doing damage control and exacerbating the already strong tensions between the LGBT and faith communities.
As the church continues its internal discernment on these issues, it is imperative that the government is not perceived as stepping outside of its proper role and inappropriately influencing these theological conversations. Just as freedom of speech is only meaningful if it protects all viewpoints, ensuring religious liberty must be respected for churches and faith-based organizations who believe that heterosexual marriage is the biblical norm. And the state should not require faith-based organizations to violate those beliefs in order to receive government contracts or grants.
Your administration has done more for LGBT rights and acceptance than any other President and you should be proud of that. Your friends in the faith community want to also help protect your legacy from being described by your critics as against religious liberty and freedom. This EO could give them ammunition to do that, if religious exemptions are diminished or lost. We trust your commitment to the faith community and your desire to partner with us. And we want to protect those invaluable relationships, especially for all the sake of the poorest and most vulnerable.
While other elected officials have done all they can to block immigration reform, eviscerate social safety nets, and allow for the continued destruction of God's Creation, you worked with us and other faith leaders to make progress on these issues. Your efforts have brought you both respect and support from within the faith community, including many evangelicals and Catholics who are often distrustful of Democratic Administrations. There is serious risk of undermining that success with a misstep on this executive order.
We believe these problems are avoidable if the Administration offers a clear and strong religious exemption to the executive order.
We deeply appreciate the ways you always listen to us and we hope this letter can be helpful. And we are available any time to meet and talk about this with you and your team.
You, as always, are in our prayers.