Thirty-seven senators urge Obama to act on gay workplace rights

February 14, 2013

President Obama has talked a lot lately about using his executive authority to circumvent Congress when it fails to act on pressing issues. He has also talked a lot lately about the need to do more to secure the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

There is one thing Obama could do right now that would marry those two goals: He could issue an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans. He could do this today.

Obama and Democrats support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would end such discrimination. It has been bottled up in Congress for many years. But Obama could move right now via executive order. Though many have been demanding this action for some time now, Obama has yet to do so.

Now, in a move that could increase the pressure for action, 37 senators have sent a letter to the president — spearheaded by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — urging him to issue this executive order. The letter, which was sent my way by a source, can be read right here, and is signed by new Senate liberals like Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), as well as much of the Democratic leadership: Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). It says:

[Y]ou are in a position to protect millions of American workers immediately by including sexual orientation and gender identity alongside long-standing anti-discrimination protections.

As you know, ENDA would prohibit most workplaces in the United States from discriminating against potential and existing employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. From our perspective, ENDA’s premise is simple: it would make federal law reflect the basic principle that Americans should be judged on their skills and abilities in the workplace, and not on irrelevant factors such as their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Currently, an Executive Order prohibits federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…Issuing an Executive Order that includes sexual orientation and gender identity is a critical step that you can take today toward ending discrimination in the workplace.

Such a move by Obama would be enormous. The American Civil Liberties Union recently argued that it could help “create a tipping point moment with employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” When combined with current workplace protections on the state and federal level, the ACLU argued, an executive order of this kind “would likely mean that, for the first time in history, more than half of all American workers would have legally binding workplace rights.” A Post editorial last year noted that such a move would extend protections to some 16.5 million employees who work for contractors that don’t have non-discrimination policies that extend to sexual orientation.

Obama deserves tremendous credit for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; for no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court; for being the first American president to come out for gay marriage; and for using his Inaugural Address to call for full equality for gay and lesbian Americans before the law. At a time when the Supreme Court is preparing to hear cases (involving DOMA and Prop 8) that could have far reaching consequences for gay rights, an ENDA executive order would send another resounding message that the culture is changing, and would constitute another step towards making the ideal of full equality before the law a reality.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | February 14, 2013