It seems religious freedom is a losing argument, even on the right.
By Jared Keller
(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
LGBT Americans can breath a short sigh of relief: Despite the threat of another sweeping executive order from the desk of President Donald Trump, the White House announced on Tuesday that it would leave intact the Obama administration’s ban on discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in the federal workforce.
In his first weeks in office, Trump has assailed immigrants and refugees, leading many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans to fear an executive order of similar effect. But despite conservative historical antipathy toward LGBT Americans, they have found themselves spared from the new president’s executive powers.
“President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election,” the White House said in a statement. “The president is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression.”
Rumors had swirled throughout Washington, D.C., that key officials in the Trump administration were “embroiled in a debate” over changing Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order, which not only extended protections to LGBT federal workers, but prohibited “overly broad” religious freedom exemptions that might leave those workers “vulnerable to discrimination and that would have set a dangerous precedent for future legislation at the state and federal level,” as Rebecca Isaacs, the executive director of Equality Federation, wrote at the time. A draft order was reportedly circulating throughout D.C. that touched of issues of adoption, per the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had refused to answer questions from reporters regarding Trump’s use of executive powers to mess with LGBT rights. “I’m not getting ahead of the executive orders that we may or may not issue,” Spicer said during a Monday press briefing, per the Post. “There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now.”
That anxiety and fear roiled progressive circles over the fate of LGBT rights is unsurprising. As the Human Rights Campaign observed in the run-up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump had promised during the primary to repeal Obama’s executive order the minute he entered the Oval Office, and voiced his support for “religious freedom” legislation like the First Amendment Defense Act. While Trump eventually pledged to protect LGBT Americans during his convention acceptance speech in July, there remained reason to suspect a reversion to his early campaign anti-LGBT anxiety.
Only 37 percent of Republican respondents favored an anti-gay-marriage president.
“We already know that he is willing to target and marginalize at-risk communities for his perceived political gain,” JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs, said in a statement on Monday, amid rumors of a White House confab on an LGBT order. “As the president and his team plan their next steps, we want to make one thing clear: We won’t give one inch when it comes to defending equality, whether it is a full-on frontal assault or an attack under the guise of religion.”
But it’s hard to really grasp how much “political gain” the Trump administration would really perceive in an anti-LGBT executive order. A July Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that only 37 percent of Republican respondents favored an anti-gay-marriage president (44 percent simply didn’t care). A vast majority of Americans (68 percent) think LGBT relationships should be legal—the highest such figure in Gallup polling history. A July Pew Research Center survey found that, of all the major issues facing registered voters during the 2016 election, only 40 percent said the treatment of LGBT Americans was “very important” to their vote, the lowest percentage for any topic — and that includes only 25 percent of Trump supporters. Even among evangelical Christians, religious freedom is increasingly a losing argument against LGBT rights.
Despite the relief of Tuesday’s White House affirmation, there’s also an odd twinge of irony: Speaking at the RNC weeks after the massacre of 49 Americans at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Trump vowed to do everything he could as president “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” His concern for LGBT rights as a terrorism issue has persisted until at least last week, when the president cited anti-gay discrimination abroad in his executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations.