WASHINGTON, DCIn a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House, with a scattering of "Amens" from the 300 or so LGBT activists gathered, President Obama this morning (July 21) signed an executive order prohibiting contractors who do business with the federal government from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and adding to existing protection (which includes sexual orientation) for federal employees a prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity.
Importantly, the new executive order neither expands nor removes a relatively narrow exemption put in place by President George W. Bush that exempts "a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society, with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities."
"President Obama is showing strong leadership taking this historic action to advance equality in our country," said openly gay U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, in a statement Friday after details of the executive order were released. "By signing this executive order banning workplace discrimination against employees of federal contractors and the federal government, we will ensure millions of American workers will be protected from discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love." Baldwin was on the front row for today's event.
But the order, because it does not create an LGBT-specific religious exemption, also hands a major victory to LGBT political and legal activists. In recent months, they have united in a pushback against efforts by religious conservatives to carve out new exceptions to existing non-discrimination laws in order to discriminate against LGBT people, especially same-sex couples seeking to marry.
The focus on religious exemptions had also grown following the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that closely held for-profit companies could claim a religious exemption from a mandate of the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptive services. Some LGBT legal activists called the decision "radical" and "dangerous," saying it could open the door for companies and other entities to seek religious exemptions for LGBT-related matters.
On July 1, a group of 14 religious leaders urged President Obama to include a "robust religious exemption" in his pending executive order for federal contractors. In a July 15 letter, 69 groups including more than two dozen religious organizations urged against such an exemption. The latter noted that religious entities already have an exemption, provided by an executive order from President George W. Bush. Although the pro-LGBT groups asked President Obama to remove the Bush religious exemption, the new executive order does not.
Before signing the document, President Obama noted that
Noting that there are now more states with marriage equality than there are prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, President Obama diverted from his prepared remarks to urge the audience to take a moment to reflect upon all the progress on LGBT issues the administration has made in the past five years.
The Human Rights Campaign heralded President Obama's executive order a "profoundly consequential" document that "dramatically underscores President Obama's own LGBT legacy of achievement unmatched in history…."
It is estimated that federal contractors employ 14 million people.
President Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 in 1965 that prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Four years later, President Nixon issued Executive Order 11478 to bar discrimination against federal employees based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and age. Although President Clinton signed Executive Order 13087, adding sexual orientation to Nixon's non-discrimination order protecting federal employees, he did not sign an order regarding employees of federal contractors. President Obama's order adds gender identity to President Nixon's order and both sexual orientation and gender identity to President Johnson's order.
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Press release from ACLU:
WASHINGTON President Obama signed an executive order today to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from workplace discrimination during a ceremony at the White House.
The order bars businesses that contract with the federal government from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It also explicitly bans discrimination against federal employees based on their gender identity, building upon prior actions by the administration to extend basic fairness and explicit protections to transgender people.
The following statement can be attributed to ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero:
"This is one of the most important actions ever taken by a president to eradicate LGBT discrimination from America's workplaces. By signing this order, President Obama is building on a bipartisan tradition, dating back over 70 years, of barring discrimination without exception when taxpayer dollars are involved. While there remains much work still to do to achieve the goal of full civil rights protections for LGBT people, we must take time to celebrate the landmarks along the way, and this is a huge win."
The executive order notably does not include a religious exemption that would have given religiously affiliated government contractors a special license to discriminate using taxpayer dollars against LGBT people. The ACLU recently withdrew its support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) over the bill's religious exemption.
Press release from Human Rights Campaign:
WASHINGTON, D.C. In a White House ceremony this morning, President Obama will sign a sweeping executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers from job discrimination. The order, profoundly consequential in its own right, dramatically underscores President Obama's own LGBT legacy of achievement, unmatched in history: three landmark pieces of legislation; 90 significant policy or regulatory changes, including the largest conferral of rights in history to LGBT people via the implementation of the Windsor decision; and 15 federal judicial and seven ambassadorial appointments.
In the executive order he will sign, President Obama explicitly protects transgender federal employees from workplace discrimination by amending an order issued by President Bill Clinton banning sexual orientation discrimination within the federal workforce. In the same order, President Obama will set strong new standards for federal contractors, which employ 20 percent of the American workforce. In so doing, the Obama administration has guaranteed that 14 million more American workers will be protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the part that applies to federal contractors, the Obama administration declined to create a separate carve-out or standard for LGBT employees. Instead, the President elected to narrowly amend Executive Order 11246, first signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965placing sexual orientation and gender identity on equal footing with race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and thus making these protections virtually politically impossible for a future administration to undo.
These two acts can be viewed as the keystone act of a concerted, six-year effort by the White House to dramatically advance the cause of LGBT equality. When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the Human Rights Campaign presented him with the Blueprint for Positive Changea checklist of actions the Obama administration could take to change the lives of LGBT Americans for the better. In the years since, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and leaders within every cabinet agency have spearheaded and achieved unprecedented progress on almost every front.
In response to the executive order, HRC president Chad Griffin issued the following statement:
"With this action, President Obama has cemented his legacy as a transformative leader. Consistently, this administration has taken unprecedented and historic executive actions to advance LGBT equality in this country and around the world.
"The focus now shifts to the House of Representatives, where the Employment Non-Discrimination Act must be brought to a vote by the House leadership. A bipartisan coalition of Americans is standing behind LGBT equality, a bipartisan coalition of our elected leaders should be doing the same."
Viewed in full, President Obama's legacy of achievement is unmatched in history: three landmark pieces of legislation; 90 significant policy or regulatory changes, including the largest conferral of rights in history to LGBT people via the implementation of the Windsor decision; and 15 federal judicial and seven ambassadorial appointments.
President Obama has signed the only signature pieces of LGBT-inclusive legislation to be passed by Congressthe Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the first-ever LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act re-authorization.
The administration has also proactively instituted 90 far-reaching administrative and regulatory policy changes that have dramatically improved the lives of LGBT people in all 50 states and around the world.
In the wake of the 2013 Windsor decision, the Obama administration worked across all cabinet agencies to ensure the fullest and broadest implementation of the decision possible under the lawresulting in the largest conferral of LGBT rights in history.
The Obama administration has made a record number of appointments of LGBT judges and ambassadorsand a broader 250 LGBT appointments to full-time and advisory positions in the federal government.
Since taking office in 2009, his administration has ensured sweeping progress for LGBT people each and every year. Take a look at this online resource profiling the administration's accomplishments.
There is still a great deal more the Obama administration can do to improve the lives of LGBT Americans through the exercise of executive power or the President's bully pulpit.
The President must continue to exert maximum pressure on Congress to act on essential pro-equality legislative priorities, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In addition to workplace discrimination protections, there is no federal law that protects LGBT from discrimination in housing and public accommodations.
Several executive actions requested in the Blueprint for Positive Change remain incomplete, and HRC continues to stress that the Obama administration must incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity as enumerated categories in all cases when providing protections under federal regulations or distinguishing populations for research and funding:
Eliminate Discrimination in Charitable Choice and Faith-Based Initiatives
Ensure Non-Discrimination Policies and Science-Based Curricula Are Not Undermined by Religious Exemptions to Accreditation Standards
End Discrimination Against Gay and Bisexual Blood Donors
Designate the LGBT Population as a Health Disparity Population
End LGBT Discrimination in Disaster Relief Services
Ensure Humane Treatment for Transgender Detainees
Review Sex Segregated Placement of Transgender Inmates in Federal Prison Facilities
Ensure Treatments Relating to Gender Transition Qualify for FMLA Leave when Necessary
And HRC continues to call on President Obama to appoint the nation's first openly-LGBT cabinet secretary.
"As cabinet vacancies emerge, I strongly encourage President Obama to choose among the many highly qualified, openly-LGBT Americans who would make exceptional appointments," Griffin said. "The President has a responsibility to ensure the diversity of his cabinet reflects the diversity of the country he serves. Just as importantly, the first-ever appointment of an openly-LGBT cabinet secretary would send a vitally important message to LGBT youth about their equal ability to serve their country at the highest levels of government."
Today's federal contractor executive order is broadly supported by the American public. A 2011 poll of likely voters conducted for HRC by GQRR found that 73 percent favored such an order and support was strong regardless of age, race, education, political ideology, and a number of other demographics.
Under Executive Order 11246, first issued by President Johnson in 1965, companies contracting with the federal government for $10,000 or more in a single year are prohibited from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, or national origin. His order built on prohibitions on race discrimination in various federal contracts issued by prior presidents, as far back as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that predated broader civil rights protections. In addition, since 1967, the executive order has also prohibited discrimination based on sex.
News release from The White House, Office of the Press Secretary:
Attached is an Executive Order signed today by the President regarding further amendments to Executive Order 11478, Equal Employment Opportunity in the Federal Government, and Executive Order 11246, Equal Employment Opportunity.