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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 25 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 30
Obama signs Executive Order barring anti-LGBT discrimination
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Obama signs Executive Order barring anti-LGBT discrimination

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

President Obama signed an executive order July 21 protecting many LGBT workers from discrimination in the workplace.

The two-part document amends previous orders by Richard Nixon on federal employment and by Lyndon Johnson on protections for employees of federal contactors.

Executive Order 11478, signed by Nixon in 1969, establishes nondiscrimination rules for federal employees. Bill Clinton added protection for sexual orientation in 1998, and Obama's amendment adds protection for gender identity.

Obama also amended Executive Order 11246, originally signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

An estimated 20% of the U.S. workforce will be covered by the president's order.

'It doesn't make much sense, but today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness that they could lose their job, not because of anything they do or fail to do, but because of who they are - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,' Obama said at the signing ceremony.

'And that's wrong. We're here to do what we can to make it right - to bend that arc of justice just a little bit in a better direction...

'In too many states and in too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fireable offense. There are people here today who've lost their jobs for that reason. This is not speculative, this is not a matter of political correctness - people lose their jobs as a consequence of this. Their livelihoods are threatened, their families are threatened. In fact, more states now allow same-sex marriage than prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers.

'So I firmly believe that it's time to address this injustice for every American.'

No religious exemption
The new executive order does not include a specific religious exemption, although it also does not abolish a 2002 executive order signed by President George W. Bush that allows religious institutions to claim exemptions based on their beliefs.

A group of religious leaders had written to Obama early this month asking him to include a broad religious exemption in his order. Some observers believe that the national LGBT organizations which publicly withdrew their support from ENDA earlier this month were trying to counter this letter and influence Obama to omit significant religious exemptions from his long-awaited executive order.

Progressive religious leaders who attended the White House signing ceremony shouted 'Amen!' as the president spoke about protecting LGBT workers from discrimination.

'Amen! Amen!' Obama responded, and then broke into an impromptu hymn.

An executive order is a rule about how the executive branch operates. Because it only applies to departments and agencies under the president and his cabinet secretaries, no Congressional approval is required.

On the other hand, Obama's order only applies to employees of the U.S. government and of companies the government does business with. To cover all workers in the U.S. would require a bill passed through Congress, which Republican House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to kill.

Groups hail president's action
In spite of the limitations of the measure, LGBT rights groups hailed Obama's order.

'This historic act will extend much-needed workplace protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers across the nation,' Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride At Work AFL-CIO said in a statement.

'Though the number of unprotected LGBT workers decreased significantly today, it's still true that the best - and sometimes only - workplace protections for vulnerable workers is a strong union contract. In the majority of states, there are still no protections for LGBT workers and Congress has stalled on passing non-discrimination protections that are unencumbered by extraneous exemptions.

'Today we can celebrate a step toward full equality, but the effort to protect workers in the workplace continues.'

'Like many presidents before him, President Obama is taking action to ensure that taxpayer money is not wasted on workplace discrimination or harassment,' said Greg Nevins of Lambda Legal. 'This is a tremendous step forward because so many workers live in states without effective legal protections and the federal employment protections for LGBT workers are not explicit.

'In a single, bold action, President Obama has thrown open the doors of opportunity for millions of lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees,' All Out's Andre Banks said. 'The executive orders set a powerful statement for similar policies at home and abroad. Today, the President has stood up for the powerful and proven idea that employment protections are good business and good policy - without loopholes and compromises that create opportunities to discriminate against a person because of who they are or whom they love.'

HRC President Chad Griffin, whose organization is one of the few which still supports ENDA, called for Congressional action to pass the long-stalled bill.

'With this action, President Obama has cemented his legacy as a transformative leader,' Griffin said. '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.'

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