By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com June 16 2014 12:27 PM ET
After years of lobbying, LGBT activists are celebrating as President Obama announced Monday that he would sign an executive order protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination.
There is no federal law to prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and such protections exist in less than half of states. With the Employment Non-Discrimination Act stalled in the House of Representatives, activists had long been urging the president to sign an executive order, which would protect those who work for federal contractors. The president had declined in the past, arguing that he would prefer to pass ENDA and protect all LGBT American workers.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, federal contractors employ more than 20 percent of the American workforce, and collect about $500 billion in contracts each year. Data from the Williams Institute shows that the order would protect 11 million more American workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and up to 16.5 million more workers based on gender identity.
The U.S. Senate passed ENDA in November but the House has yet to vote. Shortly after Obama's announcement, members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus said they supported the executive order, calling it a step toward a full federal law.
"Congress must still act on the Employer Non-Discrimination Act to ensure all workers are protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan said in a statement. "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."
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was important step toward ensuring that basic equality applies in all workplaces, and not just the ones covered in the executive order.
“As our nation marches towards justice and equality for LGBT Americans, it is disappointing that House Republicans continue to stand on the wrong side of history," Pelosi said. "Republicans should stop blocking a vote on the bipartisan Employment Non-Discrimination Act that passed the Senate, and make these essential protections the law of the land.”
Freedom To Work president Tico Almeida lauded the move in a statement to The Advocate on Monday, calling the order, "a tremendous step forward in the campaign to give LGBT Americans a fair shot to build a successful career being judged on their talent and hard work — nothing more and nothing less.”
He added, that the most immediate impact of such an order will be at "ExxonMobil’s corporate headquarters in Dallas, where the Exxon executives who have fought against LGBT protections for years will finally have to reconsider their retrograde position if they want to continue profiting from hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded contracts. We predict Exxon will finally cave to pressure.”
Similar executive orders have been used to end discrimination under the jurisdiction of the federal government, says ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero, who called discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federal workplaces "one of the last vestiges of legally sanctioned discrimination."
"For more than 70 years, presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have used executive orders to eradicate taxpayer-funded discrimination in the workplace," Romero said in a statement. "Issuing this executive order will build upon a tradition that dates back to President Roosevelt’s 1941 order conditioning defense contracts on an agreement not to discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin."
GetEQUAL was one of the organizations that has been lobbying President Obama to sign the executive order since 2008, and has staged multiple actions urging the president to issue the order. Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said the executive order was a major step, but warned that religious exemptions may be slipped into the wording.
"It is now vitally important for all of us to insist that this executive order, when eventually signed by the president, does not include religious exemptions that would permit taxpayer dollars to be spent on discrimination," she said in a statement Monday. "We will continue to be vigilant about this important aspect of the executive order — LGBT Americans need these protections immediately, and without the gaping holes that exemptions would create."