Six national gay rights groups withdrew support Tuesday for what had been hailed as historic legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination, citing concerns over an exemption for employers who object to homosexuality on religious grounds.
Led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the groups said they could no longer support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, which passed the Senate last fall.
The move, which has split gay rights groups, reflects the impact of last week's Supreme Court decision granting employers a religious exemption from providing workers with insurance coverage that includes contraceptives. Also at issue is the scope of an executive order that President Obama has promised that would ban discrimination against gays by companies doing business with the federal government.
The religious exemption in the proposed anti-discrimination law was added last year in a successful effort to attract some Republican support in the Senate, which passed the bill, 64 to 32. But some activist groups had been uncomfortable with the breadth of the exemption, and the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision heightened concern over how it could be interpreted.
"ENDA's discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations — including hospitals, nursing homes and universities — a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people," the ACLU and four other national gay rights legal groups said in a statement announcing their position. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force announced separately that it was withdrawing its support.
The Human Rights Campaign, which calls itself the nation's largest gay rights advocacy group, issued a terse statement: "HRC supports ENDA because it will provide essential workplace protections to millions of LGBT people."
An activist who agrees with the HRC elaborated on that position. "Millions of LGBT people are counting on us for these workplace protections," said the activist, who would not be quoted by name in discussing the division among allied groups. "It sends a very bad message that we are no longer fighting for their workplace protections."
In terms of immediate impact, the moves have less to do with the anti-discrimination bill than with efforts to influence Obama's executive order.
Because House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) opposes ENDA, the measure is stalled with little chance of even getting a vote in the House. The precise terms of the executive order, meanwhile, are in dispute.
Obama announced last month he would sign an order prohibiting government contractors from discriminating against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals. As White House lawyers draft the order, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and a group of Christian leaders have pressed for a religious exemption that would parallel the provision in ENDA.
Conservatives "have pointed to the exemption in ENDA and said that language should be in the executive order," said Ian Thompson of the ACLU's Washington office. "What we are really saying today is that the potential harm that [ENDA] poses to LGBT people means this legislation should not go forward."
The White House has strongly backed the anti-discrimination law with the religious exemption, but gay rights leaders familiar with the deliberations do not expect Obama to include the exemption in the executive order.