Many religious leaders and conservative groups want him to exempt religious organizations from the order. Liberal clergy and groups advocating on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people adamantly oppose such an exemption — and have pulled their support for a non-discrimination bill they long supported to drive the point home.
The upshot is a difficult balancing act for the White House, which says the executive order is still being drafted — nearly a month after Obama announced he would sign it. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to say whether a religious exemption would be included or was even being considered.
Within the past two weeks, scores of religious leaders of contrasting views have signed letters to Obama, arguing for and against an exemption.
One letter, signed by 14 faith leaders urging a "robust" exemption, was organized by Michael Wear, a Washington-based consultant who previously worked on Obama's re-election campaign and in the White House office of faith-based initiatives.
"It's a tough issue for the White House, and for me and many of the signers of the letter," Wear said. "It's about a tension between two constitutionally valid principles — protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and also protecting groups whose whole being is about religious belief."
He said the exemption sought by the 14 signatories of his letter would not establish new prerogatives for religious organizations, but would enable them to continue long-standing hiring practices favoring people who share the employers' faith. Among those signing were popular evangelical preacher Rick Warren, prominent megachurch pastor and Obama confidant Joel Hunter, and the Rev. Larry Snyder, CEO of Catholic Charities USA.
Opponents of an exemption say existing federal policy already allows some religious organizations the leeway to hire and fire based upon religious identity. However, that provision does not permit discrimination based on race, gender or disability, and gay-rights supporters say discrimination against LGBT people also should be barred.
"There is unanimity among every LGBT group that no new religious exemptions will be tolerated," said Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Taxpayers dollars should not be used to discriminate."
Many large federal contractors already have employment policies barring anti-gay workplace discrimination, as do 21 states. However, the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that the executive order would extend protections to about 14 million workers whose employers or states currently do not have such nondiscrimination policies.
While few religious organizations are among the biggest federal contractors, they do provide some valued services, including overseas relief and development programs and re-entry programs for inmates leaving federal prisons.
"Some faith-based organizations' religious identity requires that their employees share that identity," said the letter organized by Wear. "We still believe those organizations can serve their country."
However, the letter acknowledged the complexity of the debate, saying, "There is no perfect solution that will make all parties completely happy."
In a contrasting public letter, more than 100 liberal faith leaders asked Obama to leave out a religious exemption in his upcoming order.
"The faith community that taught me never to throw stones should not have special permission from the White House to throw stones," said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary. "It is simply theologically indefensible."
For Obama, the issue squeezes him between two communities whose interests he has sought to protect. While he has cultivated the support of gay-rights groups, he also has tried to stay on good terms with religious groups, in part to maintain their backing for an overhaul of immigration laws.
Until last month, Obama long resisted pressure to pursue an executive order for federal contractors in hopes that Congress would take more sweeping action banning anti-LGBT workplace discrimination nationwide.
A bill to accomplish that goal — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — passed the Senate last year with some Republican support, but has not been taken up by the GOP-controlled House.
On Tuesday, a half-dozen prominent gay-rights and civil-rights organizations which had been longtime supporters of that bill announced that they were withdrawing their support because of the broad religious exemption included in it as a means of gaining some Republican votes.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said it was difficult to repudiate a bill that her group had advocated over two decades.
"When I think back to the early years of working on ENDA, I suspect we would have been very happy to get anything passed because at that time there were zero federal laws and there were only nine states that offered any protections," she said. "We as LGBT people and we as a country are in a very different place now."
Carey and other activists said their decision was prompted in part by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. The high court ruled that some businesses can, because of their owners' religious beliefs, choose not to comply with the federal health care law's requirement that contraception coverage be provided to workers at no extra charge.
That ruling did not address discrimination in workplace hiring and firing, but many gay rights activists have cited the case as a reason to be more aggressive in opposing religious exemptions that might disadvantage LGBT people.
The Human Rights Campaign — the largest national gay-rights group — is virtually alone among its major counterparts in maintaining its support for the stalled non-discrimination act, saying it would benefit millions of people.
The HRC's president, Chad Griffin, wrote in an online column Wednesday that his group would seek to narrow the exemption that is currently in ENDA, and also would begin campaigning for a comprehensive LGBT rights bill encompassing housing, public accommodations, education and other areas.
Crary reported from New York and Leff from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington also contributed to this report.
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