Amid expectations that President Obama will encourage Congress to pass jobs legislation during his upcoming State of the Union address, LGBT advocates are calling on him to articulate the need for legislative and administrative action to protect against anti-LGBT job bias.
President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday at 9 p.m. before a joint session of Congress to inform lawmakers about legislation he wants passed during the first year of his second term, which may include immigration reform, deficit reduction, gun control and job creation initiatives.
But LGBT rights supporters — recalling Obama’s historic LGBT-inclusion in his inaugural address — are asking Obama to address one LGBT issue that remains outstanding since the start of his administration in 2009: the lack of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers. Legislation addressing the issue that has languished in Congress for decades is known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, said “it would be fantastic” for Obama to follow-up on his inaugural speech to call for ENDA passage.
“The year 2013 should bring important steps forward on ENDA, with a high probability of a successful Senate Committee mark-up and the possibility of a long overdue ENDA vote on the Senate floor,” Almeida said. “It would be very helpful for the president to use the State of the Union to assert his strong leadership on this issue by publicly calling on both chambers of Congress to vote on ENDA.”
It wouldn’t be the first time ENDA was mentioned during a State of the Union address. In 1999, then-President Clinton called for passage of the bill in addition to approval of hate crimes protections legislation, which Obama eventually signed into law in 2009.
“Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual orientation is wrong and it ought to be illegal,” Clinton said. “Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.”
Obama has also made references to the LGBT community in previous State of the Union addresses. In 2010, he foreshadowed the legislative effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” promising to “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
In 2011, Obama pledged to finish the job on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by certifying an end to the military’s gay ban before the end of the year. And last year, as lesbian Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace sat in the box near first lady Michelle Obama, Obama alluded to repeal of the ban, saying, “When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight.”
What Obama will say during the State of the Union address this year is unknown. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said he doesn’t have a preview of Obama’s remarks.
But the request to articulate the need for workplace protections for LGBT people isn’t limited to legislation. LGBT advocates say the State of the Union would also be an opportunity for Obama to commit to an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said the nation’s largest LGBT group “would love to see” Obama pledge to issue this order during his remarks.
“With federal employment discrimination legislation for LGBT people currently stalled in Congress, such an order would be an important step forward and would provide important protections for millions of American workers,” Sainz said. “It’s also a natural extension of the president’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ campaign.”
The White House has repeatedly said it prefers a legislative approach to instituting federal non-discrimination protections as opposed to administrative action. Asked about the directive by the Washington Blade in December, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the legislative approach to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal should be “a model for the way to approach these issues.”
But Freedom to Work’s Almeida said observers may see a reversal during the upcoming State of the Union address because Obama has previously taken the opportunity of these speeches to announce administrative action.
“President Obama has announced other executive orders during prior addresses to Congress, and it would be great if the president used this opportunity to announce that he is fulfilling a campaign promise to prevent taxpayer money from being squandered on workplace discrimination and harassment against LGBT employees,” Almeida said.
If Obama doesn’t elect to enumerate any specific pro-LGBT initiative during the speech, it’s possible he could offer a more general sense of support for the LGBT community as he did during his inaugural.
Sainz noted the importance of including such language in the State of the Union regardless of whether any mention of ENDA is made.
“Language that speaks to the inclusion of LGBT people as being a vital and important part of America is always important,” Sainz said. “The president’s recognition of the historical significance of Stonewall was incredibly important not just to the dignity of our movement but also to growing support among fair-minded Americans for the whole host of unfinished priorities.”