We’re Suspending Support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act: Here’s Why

July 11, 2014

Last year, we helped rally support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill in the U.S. Senate that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT Americans in employment, and that bill passed. This week, we have suspended our support of ENDA, and we think it’s important to explain why. It might not surprise you to know that it has a lot to do with the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court, and special privileges for religion.

You see, in order to get this non-discrimination bill passed, it contained language that exempted “religious employers” who might consider such a law a violation of their free exercise rights. We absolutely opposed this exemption, but reluctantly swallowed it as a political necessity for passage, as the exemptions would be limited to “genuinely” religious employers such as churches, ministries, religiously affiliated universities, hospitals, and other religious non-profit organizations. But what we expected to be a narrow provision of an overall good bill is in danger of being interpreted extremely broadly.

Last month in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court ruled that this limit was insufficient, and in the case of the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, they declared that for-profit corporations (which employ over half of all Americans) have, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a right to refuse on religious grounds to provide contraceptive coverage in employee health care plans. In other words, even though Hobby Lobby is a regular business, they get to opt out of following the law because they claimed a religious privilege.

This sets the stage for all manner of religious exemptions to generally applicable laws, to be claimed by businesses of any kind, and it absolutely puts ENDA in danger of being rendered almost wholly moot. If it were to become law, with its current language about religious exemptions for discrimination, the Hobby Lobby decision ensures that any for-profit corporation could declare a religious objection to hiring and equal treatment of LGBT Americans, and never face a penalty for discrimination.

So what was once a narrow political necessity for a greater good has become an unacceptable flaw . The Center for Inquiry believes passionately in the full equality of all individuals, regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they believe, or who they love. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, as currently written, no longer serves that cause, but rather gives the government’s seal of approval to employers’ use of religion as an excuse for trampling on the rights of LGBT Americans in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

We cannot accept that, and we won’t support it.  CFI will settle for nothing less than a strong federal law that protects from employment discrimination all LGBT individuals, full stop. When that bill surfaces, it will have the full weight of our enthusiastic support.