After announcing his intention to do so earlier this summer, President Obama signed an executive order today that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The order amended Executive Order 11478—signed by President Nixon in 1969 to prohibit employment discrimination in the federal government because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap or age—that was further amended by President Clinton in 1998 to include sexual orientation. Obama has added gender identity to the list of protected classes.
The new order also amends Executive Order 11246, signed by President Johnson in 1965, which prohibits federal contractors from engaging in employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. President Obama has amended this to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
This is a huge step forward in protecting the rights of LGBTQ federal employees, particularly because the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was passed in the Senate last November, has stalled in the House. President Obama previously decided not to sign an executive order on this subject in 2012, presumably because he believed ENDA would pass.
A complete exemption for houses of worship, parochial and similar religious schools and missions
A codification of the so-called “ministerial exemption” recognized by many federal courts, exempting positions at religious organizations that involve teaching or spreading religion, religious governance or the supervision of individuals engaged in these activities
A provision allowing religious organizations, for classes of jobs, to require employees and applicants to conform to a set of religious tenets, including ones which would bar LGBT people from holding the position
Thankfully, President Obama ignored calls from groups and organizations who asked him to include religious exemptions in the executive orders signed today. Civil rights groups (including several religiously affiliated groups, such as Catholics for Choice and American Jewish Committee) had sent a letter in protest of these requests.
The executive order is the latest effort the Obama administration has made in ensuring the rights of LGBT Americans. In his October 1, 2011 speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual national dinner, President Obama stated:
Every single American—gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—every single American deserves to be treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society.
Following and complimenting such historic moments as repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ending the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and signing legislation to prevent hate crimes, this executive order is a historic act that, according to Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, “will demonstrate to Congress that adopting federal employment protections for LGBT people is good policy and good for business.” Currently, Griffin points out, there is:
no federal law or regulation that explicitly bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And in 29 states, it’s legal under state law to fire or refuse employment to a person based on sexual orientation—and 32 states lack explicit laws banning discrimination based on gender identity.
The new executive order only prohibits companies that contract with the federal government and the federal government itself from engaging in employment discrimination. Companies in the private sector who do not contract with the federal government can still discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Obviously, more work needs to be done.
Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an intern for Ms. Follow her on Twitter: @Though_She_Be.