Six years after promising to do so, President Barack Obama added his signature on Monday to an executive order barring LGBT discrimination by federal contractors. He also went further and formally amended a separate executive order to include workplace protections for transgender employees of the U.S. government.
“I know I’m a little late,” said Obama, referring to the near-30 minute delay of Monday’s signing ceremony (though some might argue that it was a delay of six years and 30 minutes). “Many of you have worked for a long time to see this day come.”
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe — a Democrat whose first order of business after his inauguration was to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the state government — Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu, and a number of LGBT workplace equality advocates joined the president for the announcement. Obama declared that, as of Monday, the federal government would “become just a little bit fairer.”
“For more than two centuries we have strived, often at great cost, to form a more perfect union,” said Obama. “Many of us are only here because others fought to secure rights and opportunities for us. We’ve got a responsibility to do the same for future generations.”
Though the order won’t protect all LGBT employees, it will apply to approximately 20% of the national workforce, which is the percentage employed by federal contractors legally bound to comply with the order. To cover the remaining 80%, the president urged Congress to act on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). If passed, the law would bar any employer from firing, refusing to hire, or otherwise discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A version of ENDA was first proposed on the House floor in 1974.
“Congress has spent 40 years — four decades — considering legislation that would help solve the problem. That’s a long time,” said Obama. “But I want 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 would resolve this problem once and for all.”
The latest version of ENDA passed the U.S. Senate last year, but failed to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled House. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling allowing companies like Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain owned by evangelical Christian family, to be exempt from contraception-related provisions under the Affordable Care Act, LGBT advocates walked away from ENDA in its current form because the bill contained a broad religious exemption. Last week, the White House announced that Monday’s executive order would not include a similar exemption despite pressure from high-profile faith leaders — some of whom are Obama’s allies — to create one for religious organizations in business with the U.S. government. Whatever their religious beliefs, all federal contractors will be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“[Obama’s] decision not to include a new religious exemption is a testament to his understanding of religious freedom,” said Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance, in a statement. “We cannot secure the separation of church and state if religious organizations are allowed to use federal money to pursue a sectarian agenda. This executive order is an important step toward ensuring that public money does not fund religiously motivated discrimination.”
Since taking office, Obama has made tremendous strides for LGBT equality — enough to earn him a reputation as “the first gay president.” Along with his overseeing the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was the military’s ban on openly gay service members, and becoming the first sitting president to publicly endorse same-sex marriage, many view Obama’s action on LGBT workplace equality as “the third leg of the stool.”
“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,” said to ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero in a statement. “This is a huge win.”