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Faith Groups Seek Exclusion From Bias Rule

WASHINGTON — After a setback in the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case, President Obama is facing mounting pressure from religious groups demanding to be excluded from his long-promised executive order that would bar discrimination against gay men and lesbians by companies that do government work.

Win McNamee / Staff | Getty Images News

The president has yet to sign the executive order, but last week a group of major faith organizations, including some of Mr. Obama's allies, said he should consider adding an exemption for groups whose religious beliefs oppose homosexuality. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the court ruled that family-run corporations with religious objections could be exempted from providing employees with insurance coverage for contraception.

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The demands of the faith organizations pose a dilemma for Mr. Obama, who has struggled to preserve freedom of expression among religious groups while supporting the rights of gay men and lesbians. Mr. Obama could unleash a conservative uproar if he is seen as intruding on religious beliefs, but many of his strongest supporters would be bitterly disappointed if he appeared to grant any leeway to anti-gay discrimination.

The White House has given no reason for the executive order's delay.

In a July 1 letter to Mr. Obama sent the day after the Hobby Lobby case was decided, leaders of religious groups wrote that ''we are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.''

The effort behind the letter was organized by Michael Wear, who worked in the White House faith-based initiative during Mr. Obama's first term and directed the president's faith outreach in the 2012 campaign. The letter, which called for a ''robust religious exemption'' in the planned executive order, was also signed by the Rev. Larry Snyder, the chief executive of Catholic Charities U.S.A.; Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, who delivered the invocation at Mr. Obama's first inauguration; and Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, an aid group affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals.

Read MoreWhat's reallysurprising about the HobbyLobby decision

Mr. Wear, who calls himself an ''ardent supporter'' of the president and a backer of gay rights, said in an interview on Tuesday that the rationale of the organizations was to maintain the rights they have. ''We're not trying to support crazy claims of religious privilege,'' he said.

He described the letter as a request from ''friends of the administration'' to ensure that the executive order provides ''robust'' protection of religious service organizations that uphold religious-based moral standards for their staff members, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim.

To give an example, faith leaders said a Catholic charity group that believes sex outside heterosexual marriage is a sin should not be denied government funding because it refused to employ a leader who was openly gay. Gay-rights groups countered that it would be unacceptable to allow religious organizations receiving taxpayer money to refuse to hire employees simply because they were gay, and said they did not expect the White House to provide such an exclusion. On Tuesday they stepped up their calls for Mr. Obama to quickly complete and sign the order.

''Activists have every expectation that this executive order will be issued without any further religious exemption,'' Fred Sainz, vice president for communications and marketing at the Human Rights Campaign, said in an interview.

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The July 1 letter followed one on June 25 that was signed by more than 150 conservative religious groups and leaders, including many major evangelical associations. That letter warned the president that ''any executive order that does not fully protect religious freedom will face widespread opposition and will further fragment our nation.''

The groups said many organizations doing vital work for the federal government in overseas relief, prisons and technical aid maintained religious-based ''employee moral conduct standards'' that could be affected by the order.

Last month, Mr. Obama promised he would soon sign the executive order, which would bar federal contractors from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He said he was acting on his own because a drive in Congress for a national anti-bias law to cover nearly all employers, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, had stalled.

Many states already have nondiscrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers, but the presidential order would extend anti-bias rules to companies and service agencies that receive federal contracts in the 29 states that do not have such laws. The order would protect an additional 14 million workers, according to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the School of Law of the University of California, Los Angeles. It would apply to companies that do business with the federal government, including large American employers like Exxon Mobil and Dell, as well as religious universities and charities with federal contracts.

Federal employees already have the protections under an executive order issued in 1998 by President Bill Clinton.

Gay-rights advocates argue that religious groups already enjoy a broad exemption under a 2002 executive order signed by President George W. Bush that allows faith-based organizations to consider religion in hiring decisions without jeopardizing federal grants or contracts.

''There's no reason to add additional language to further allow discrimination,'' said Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group.

In the continuing battle for opinion, on Tuesday 100 liberal faith leaders released a letter to the president urging him to issue the anti-bias order without any new religious exemption.

Also on Tuesday, a group of gay-rights and civil-rights groups withdrew their support for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which includes a religious exemption. The groups, which had never liked the religious provision in the proposed legislation but accepted it as a way to attract Republican support, said the Hobby Lobby decision had ''made it all the more important that we not accept this inappropriate provision.''

—By The New York Times' Julie Hirschfeld Davis, reporting from Washington, and Erik Eckholm from New York.

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