Gordon College faces a choice

Wenham’s Gordon College asked the Obama administration this month for an exemption to new federal antidiscrimination rules, and on Monday the school got an emphatic response: No. In announcing the new hiring rules, Obama pointedly refused to exempt religious institutions like Gordon from the new policy, which forbids federal contractors from hiring discrimination against gay or transgender Americans. The new rules leave Christian institutions like Gordon with two choices: They can either adopt antidiscrimination policies to comply with the rules, or they can stop accepting federal money. Hopefully, Gordon will come into compliance with the rule rather than dig in for a losing fight.

Obama’s policy, which he signed on Monday, falls short of the kind of comprehensive antidiscrimination law gay-rights advocates have long demanded. But that’s up to Congress, and until lawmakers act, Obama’s order is the next best thing. Companies, universities, and other entities that do business with the federal government account for about a fifth of the nation’s workforce. While many of those companies already have antidiscrimination policies, the order will extend protections to millions.

Religious groups have pressed the notion that barring discrimination is itself a form of intolerance, since it means they cannot discriminate as they say their faith requires. But religious institutions have to abide by the norms of the wider society when they act as commercial employers. If Obama had granted Gordon’s request for an exemption, it would have set a disturbing precedent. A federal rule barring race and gender discrimination by federal contractors has been on the books in some form for 50 years, and it’s never allowed religious excuses for noncompliance. Rightly, the Obama administration declined to begin that practice now.