IN THE politically charged election year of 1996 — the same year the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed both houses of Congress with veto-proof margins — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) reached the Senate floor and was defeated by a single vote.
Reading the tea leaves then, it might have seemed that employment discrimination against gay workers would become illegal long before 17 years would pass. It was same-sex marriage that seemed unlikely. But a nation that has evolved rapidly toward supporting marriage equality continues to drag its feet on workforce fairness. The rejection of ENDA, a version of which was proposed as far back as the mid-1970s, has become something of a ritual: The act has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, save one.
Recently, however, there have been promising signs. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved ENDA by a 2 to 1 margin, with support from all Democrats and from Republicans Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Especially in a year when the Supreme Court has overturned a key part of DOMA and civil rights groups have launched a major campaign for ENDA, that bodes well for the act’s appearance on the Senate floor in the near future.
In the meantime, President Obama could sign an executive order that would immediately protect gay and transgender employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination.
Those contractors, which employ approximately 20 percent of the nation’s workforce, are currently prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex, but aren’t subject to comparable provisions regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.
The order would not be unduly burdensome. After decades of urging by civil rights groups, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted similar provisions of their own. Many contractors already abide without difficulty by these corporate codes protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Besides, there’s considerable precedent for the White House mandating that those who do business with the federal government do it fairly and don’t discriminate against their employees in the process. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order requiring that federal contractors adhere to principles of fair competition; in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson prohibited racial discrimination in contractors’ hiring processes.
Mr. Obama promised on the campaign trail in 2008 that he would sign an executive order protecting gays in the federal contractor force. His failure to do so becomes increasingly indefensible and inexplicable by the day. An executive order could generate momentum for ENDA, not to mention put in place at least some protections until the act becomes law.
After helping to end discrimination in the military and publicly endorsing same-sex marriage in his first term, it’s time the president honor the promise he made five years ago.