President Barack Obama made good on a 2008 campaign promise today when he signed two executive orders that will protect many LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace.
By adding the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to two existing executive orders, the president made it illegal for companies that contract with the federal government to fire, decline to promote, or refuse to hire someone simply because they are LGBT. The order, which takes effect immediately, will protect an estimated 20 percent of American workers.
In his remarks before signing the orders this morning, the president acknowledged that it "doesn't make much sense" that American workers can lose their job "because of who they are -- lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender."
"That's wrong," Obama continued. "We're here to do what we can to make it right -- to bend that arc of justice just a little bit in a better direction."
Obama's changes added the words "sexual orientation, gender identity" to the list of characteristics which may not be discriminated against, including sex and national origin, in executive orders 11246 -- which prohibits discrimination by federal contractors -- and executive order 11478, which prohibits discrimination by the federal government in its employment of civilians.
Explaining the impact of the orders, the president noted that "the federal government already prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Once I sign this order, the same will be explicitly true for gender identity."
The amendments to E.O. 11246, Obama explained, will "prohibit all companies that receive a contract from the federal government from discriminating against their LGBT employees."
"America's federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people," added the president.
LGBT groups nationwide applauded today's action, particularly lauding the fact that neither order included a religious exemption, which advocates were concerned would allow religiously affiliated groups and individuals to ignore federal law, and which religious and right-wing groups had been lobbying the White House in recent weeks to include.
The Human Rights Campaign sent out a press release explaining the importance of the White House's decision to narrowly amend an existing order, rather than creating an entirely new executive order, which could be overturned by another president.
"In the part that applies to federal contractors, the Obama administration declined to create a separate carve-out or standard for LGBT employees," explained the HRC in an email to its supporters Monday morning. "Instead, the President elected to narrowly amend Executive Order 11246, first signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 -- placing sexual orientation and gender identity on equal footing with race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and thus making these protections virtually politically impossible for a future administration to undo."
Other groups noted the historic nature of today's actions.
"For the first time in our nation's history, all hardworking LGBT employees of the federal government and federal contractors are protected from discrimination," said Rebecca Issacs, executive director of the Equality Federation. "Because of these historic executive orders, LGBT workers will be judged on their qualifications, experience, and performance -- nothing more, and nothing less."
"This is one of the most important actions ever taken by a president to eradicate LGBT discrimination from America's workplaces," said the American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero. "By signing this order, President Obama is building on a bipartisan tradition, dating back over 70 years, of barring discrimination without exception when taxpayer dollars are involved. While there remains much work still to do to achieve the goal of full civil rights protections for LGBT people, we must take time to celebrate the landmarks along the way, and this is a huge win."
Both the president and numerous LGBT groups also took today's action as an opportunity to call on Congress to pass the long-languishing Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend the same kind of protections enacted today to workers at companies with more than 15 employees nationwide.
Noting that just 18 states have enacted legislation protecting LGBT workers from employment discrimination, Obama turned his attention to ENDA.
"Now, Congress has spent 40 years -- four decades -- considering legislation that would help solve the problem," said the president. "That's a long time. And yet they still haven't gotten it done. ... But I'm going to do what I can, with the authority I have, to act. The rest of you, of course, need to keep putting pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation that resolves this problem once and for all."
At that point, an audience member shouted "Amen," which the president then repeated twice.
Watch NBC's coverage of today's signing below.
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