When it came to issuing an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors, President Obama had a choice. He could play it safe and include a giant religious exception, which many religious leaders wanted, even Democratic religious leaders, or he could make a statement that LGBT rights aren’t negotiable.
Today Obama is scheduled to sign an executive order that makes a huge statement in the right direction. And by making a move that depends solely on him, the president is demonstrating–finally and with an exclamation mark–that he sees nondiscrimination as a core principle and that he’s willing to take big risks on our behalf.
That the decision didn’t seem a foregone conclusion says a lot about Obama. No one can question his support for LGBT issues; after all, his Administration aggressively pursued formalizing marriage benefits in federal policy where others might have paused.
But Obama is also an inherently cautious politician. His instinct is to “evolve,” not act decisively. He was the one dragging his heels on marriage equality, until Joe Biden forced his hand. He took his sweet time with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, letting others take the lead. (In fairness to Obama, if he took the lead, repealing DADT would have been DOA in Congress.) Even today’s executive order has been dragging on for months.
If Obama has signed the order earlier in the year, he could avoided a lot of the second guessing that erupted after the Hobby Lobby ruling. That Supreme Court decision upped the stakes considerably, by blessing religious exceptions for corporations. High-profile lobbying by religious leaders like Rick Warren added to the pressure for Obama to cave.
Which makes Obama’s decision to omit a religious exception in the executive order all that much more bold. Religious conservatives see the decision as a “drop dead” (actually, another two-word phrase) gesture. Obama probably doesn’t view it that way, but he is willing to take on the religious-“liberty” crowd. And he’s willing to do so to protect LGBT workers.
At this point, Obama doesn’t have much to lose. He’s not running for re-election, so he can worry less about political fallout. It would be hard for his poll numbers to be worse. It’s not like the Catholic bishops will ever like him, and the religious right wouldn’t have been satisfied with the religious exception anyway. (Give them an inch, and you’re still going to hell, so why bother?)
Moreover, he knows better than anyone that religious groups already have plenty of protection under an existing executive order. What they were seeking is special rights–you know, the kind of thing that they always accused us of wanting. Obama is sending a strong signal that there is a such a thing as separation between Church and state, something that the religious right denies exists.
All this is especially significant because Obama is riding solo on this decision. He can’t hide behind the Supreme Court or let Congress take the lead. Joe Biden didn’t back him into a corner. The sole responsibility for this decision lies with Obama.
With this action, he chose sides and proved beyond a doubt that it’s our side he’s on.