Today’s signing comes after two extraordinary meetings in the West Wing within the last two weeks between a small group of leaders from the religious and LGBT communities. Gatherings that happened after folks in the religious community who are friends of Obama started pressuring him to shield religious entities from complying with his impending order. According to an administration official, the meetings, which will be ongoing, were “very constructive and deeply moving.” Because the participants “listened and sought to put themselves in the other’s shoes,” they were able “to have really open and honest conversations” about religious freedom and the need to protect people from discrimination. The president’s action today shows the two are not mutually exclusive.
Once Obama signs the order, LGBT employees who work for federal contractors will be protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, bias against federal employees based on gender identity will be prohibited. They have been protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation since President Clinton’s executive order in 1998.
President Johnson was the first to use an executive order to protect federal contractors. In 1965, he signed Executive Order 11246 that banned discrimination based on race, creed, color or national origin. He amended it in 1967 to include protection based on sex. Then, Bush added a religious exemption to the Johnson order in 2002 that allows religiously affiliated contractors to use religion as a factor in hiring. That religious entities wanted to be permitted to NOT hire someone because they are LGBT is the height of unfairness. Or put another way: You can’t hire people of your faith but then not hire someone of your faith because they’re gay.
Obama’s executive order will apply to the 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce. One reason we haven’t heard any squawking from the business community is because most federal contractors are already protecting their LGBT employees. Among the data points in a “confidential memo”written by the Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress in 2012 for then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was this key statistic: 92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.
So, you might be wondering, if this is already being done why does government need to get involved? It boils down to fairness. First, federal contractors are paid with taxpayer money and LGBT Americans are not exempt from sharing in the annual April 15 obligation. They are right to expect those companies with contracts valued at more than $10,000 to not be given a potential pass on discrimination. Most important, gay Americans should not fear or be subjected to bias simply because of who they are.
“The President and the American people firmly believe that all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in the workforce,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, told me Sunday. “At a critical time for our nation’s economy, we need all of our workers to be focused on making the most of their talent, skill and ingenuity, rather than worrying about losing their job due to discrimination.” Adding to the religious exemption already on the books would not have alleviated that worry.
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