Updated 3:45 p.m. | President Barack Obama plans to use his pen to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by federal contractors — an idea that the White House has resisted for years as it pursued passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress.
The news, announced via email, received instant applause from gay rights advocates.
“With this announcement, the arc of history bends a little farther toward justice,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the lead ENDA sponsor.
Merkley continued: “Discrimination simply has no place in American workplaces. This executive order will allow millions more Americans to go to work empowered with the right to do their jobs free of harassment or discrimination.
“Most Americans don’t know that it’s still legal in many states to fire someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s because it not only defies common sense, it goes wholly against who we are as a nation. No more excuses. It’s way past time for Speaker [John A.] Boehner to allow ENDA to have a vote in the House. No one should be fired because of who they are or whom they love.”
Most congressional Democrats had been urging Obama to pursue the executive order for months — and some for years. The White House had no answer when asked repeatedly at daily briefings why Obama had issued executive orders on the minimum wage and other issues affecting federal contractors, but not on ending discrimination.
But the decision, announced a day before the president headlines the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT gala in New York, could help energize the party — and its donor base — ahead of the midterm elections.
The White House touted it alongside other achievements for gay rights in Obama’s tenure, including an expansion of the hate crimes law, adding LGBT provisions to the Violence Against Women Act and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force also issued a statement, calling the decision “a major step forward in the struggle for freedom and justice for LGBTQ workers and their families.”
Prospects for a House vote on the Senate-passed ENDA bill remain in doubt, despite its 205 co-sponsors and strong poll results on the issue.
Democrats — and the White House — made clear that the executive order isn’t a substitute for congressional action.
“The reality is that many LGBT workers still remain vulnerable to employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a statement. “Without the enactment of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it remains perfectly legal to do so in many states across the country.”
“The House Republican leadership should take note of the bipartisan vote in the Senate and the broad public support that exists for ENDA and allow a vote on this legislation,” said Rep. David Ciccilline, D-R.I., a co-chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus.
“We need to give LGBT workers a fair shot to get ahead in life by making sure employers cannot fire, harass, deny a raise, or refuse to hire someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., another co-chairman of the caucus.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who voted for ENDA in the Senate, urged the president to include the same exemptions.
“While the specifics of this executive order are not yet clear, I believe it must include the same religious protections that are included in the bipartisan Employment Non-Discrimination Act that passed the Senate,” he said. “ENDA strikes a good balance to ensure that discrimination based on sexual orientation will not be tolerated, but also that one of our nation’s fundamental — religious freedom — is still upheld.”
Other Republican lawmakers didn’t immediately react to the news.
Here’s a memo from a White House official announcing Obama’s action.
The President has declared 2014 a year of action — vowing to use the power of his pen and phone to take action on behalf of the American people to strengthen the economy and the middle class. His actions have been driven by the core American principle that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed, and that your ability to get ahead should be determined by your hard work, ambition, and goals — not by the circumstances of your birth, your sexual orientation or gender identity.
Today, millions of Americans in most states in the country go to work every day knowing they could lose their jobs simply because of who they are or who they love. No current federal law adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workers from employment discrimination. 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.
Following on his pledge for this to be a year of action to expand opportunity for all Americans, 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 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.
President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his Administration have made to advance and promote equality, justice, and dignity for all members 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. 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.