President Obama is set to sign an executive order that would bar anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Blade on Monday the new directive is in line with Obama’s pledge to make 2014 a year of action and use his “pen” to take administrative action if Congress fails to act.
“The president has directed his staff to prepare for his signature an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the official said. “The action would build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This is consistent with the president’s views that all Americans, LGBT or not, should be treated with dignity and respect.”
The executive order was one of the last remaining initiatives that LGBT advocates had sought from the Obama administration in the aftermath of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, discontinued defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court, coming out for marriage equality and submitting a brief in the case against California’s Proposition 8.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, called the decision “a major step forward” in improving the lives of LGBT people.
“Now millions of people will have the economic security they need to provide for their families,” Carey said. “Through his actions, the president has demonstrated again his commitment to ending discrimination. We thank all the organizations who have worked so hard to make this piece of history. This decision is good for LGBTQ people, good for our economy and good for America.”
According to a 2012 study from the Williams Institute, as many as 16.5 million people would receive protections under the executive order because they work for federal contractors. However, the number of LGBT people within this group is smaller — about 400,000 -600,000.
Outgoing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had faced questions about whether Obama would sign the executive order from multiple media outlets, especially LGBT media including the Washington Blade, since April 2011. Each time, Carney has said the administration prefers the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would bar anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among many public and private employers, not just federal contractors.
Following a high-level meeting between LGBT advocates and the senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett in April 2012, Carney announced that the administration wouldn’t issue the executive order “at this time.” But that didn’t stop LGBT advocates from continuing to call for and demonstrate on behalf of the executive order.
Vice President Joseph Biden told The Huffington Post just last month he sees no “downside” to issuing an executive order against LGBT discrimination, although he maintained legislation remains the best path. Nonetheless, Biden’s words triggered speculation that an executive order from would soon follow, much like his endorsement of marriage equality, which preceded Obama’s just days earlier.
On Monday, the White House official told the Blade that Obama continues to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but noted the U.S. House has not yet acted to pass the legislation following a bi-partisan vote of 64-32 to approve the bill in the U.S. Senate late last year.
“No current federal law adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workers from employment discrimination,” the White House official said. “That’s why the president has long supported federal legislation to explicitly prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Last November, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support. However, the House has failed to act on this important legislation.”
It wasn’t immediately known when Obama would formally pen his name to the executive order. He’s scheduled to speak this week at a Democratic National Committee gala for the LGBT community in New York City and to speak at a Pride reception at the White House on June 30.
Asked by the Blade whether there could be a scenario in which Obama would drop plans to sign the executive order, the White House official replied, “The president’s intentions are clear.”
It also wasn’t immediately known whether Obama would sign a new executive order or simply amend Executive Order 11246, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin among federal contractors who do more than $10,000 a year in business with the federal government.
The White House official pushed back in response to a question over whether the decision to sign the order reflects an assessment that ENDA won’t pass by the end of this Congress.
“We do not believe executive action and congressional action are mutually exclusive,” the official said. “By prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers by federal contractors, we would be doing our part to expand opportunity for every hard-working American, regardless of who they are or who they love. We continue to hope the House will follow the bipartisan lead of the Senate and pass legislation. But we’re not going to wait any longer for them to do so.”
Despite the continued push for ENDA, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the LGBT Equality Caucus in January there’s “no way” it will come up before Election Day, although participants in the meeting expressed a sense that a vote may take place in the lame duck session of Congress.
On the same day the Blade learned about this development, the Human Rights Campaign published new polling data demonstrating strong public support for federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in the workforce.
According to the national survey by TargetPoint Consulting, 63 percent of those surveyed favor a federal law that protects gay and transgender people from employment discrimination, while only 25 percent oppose it. The poll was conducted June 6-10 among 1,200 registered voters.
A 2011 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research had similar results regarding the executive order itself and found 73 percent of likely voters would support it.
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, praised Obama for his plans and said the House needs to follow suit by taking up ENDA.
“The reality is that many LGBT workers still remain vulnerable to employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Harkin said. “Without the enactment of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it remains perfectly legal to do so in many states across the country. The House should take up and pass ENDA, which was approved with bipartisan support both in the HELP Committee and on the Senate floor.”
The White House official said the executive order builds on Obama’s record on LGBT issues — and would precede more work on behalf of the LGBT community.
“From signing an inclusive Hate Crimes law to passing the Affordable Care Act, from reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with provisions to protect LGBT victims to ensuring equality in federal housing, we have taken many important steps forward,” the official said. “While work remains to ensure that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are equal under the law, we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”