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Obama advances anti-discrimination policy with executive order

Congress won't pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but the president can advance many of its goals through executive action.
US President Barack Obama signs an executive order during an event in the East Room of the White House April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama signs an executive order during an event in the East Room of the White House April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, after already having passed the Senate, has 206 co-sponsors in the House, including lawmakers from both parties. It's tough to argue against the bill -- under federal law, employers can legally fire employees if they're gay, or even if they think the employees are gay. ENDA would make such discrimination illegal, and with 206 co-sponsors, all that's needed is a floor vote.
But that's not going to happen. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will not allow the House to express its will on the legislation, falsely claiming, "People are already protected in the workplace."
A month ago, President Obama got tired of waiting for GOP leaders to allow a vote and directed his staff to craft an executive order to advance ENDA's goals with federal contractors. Today, he made policy by signing it.

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.”

The Washington Post's report added, "The universe of workers potentially affected by the order is at once wide-reaching and narrow. '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,' writes Jonathan Capeheart. On the other hand, 92 percent of the largest contractors already have some sort of protection for sexual identity, and 58 percent already have protection based on gender identity."
By any measure, this is no small change. It does, however, lead to the Hobby-Lobby-related question: if a private corporation's executives support discrimination for religious reasons, are they exempt from the new Obama administration policy?

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision may have opened the door to a number of potential horrors, but tarnishing President Obama's legacy on LGBT equality won't be one of them. Bucking calls from more than a dozen high-profile faith leaders – some his own allies – Obama has decided to leave out a religious exemption in two upcoming executive orders regarding LGBT discrimination, the Associated Press reported Friday. One will extend workplace protections to transgender employees of the U.S. government. And the other will bar LGBT discrimination among all companies that do business with the U.S. government, a move anticipated to cover about a fifth of the national workforce.

This has been a lingering question about the president's executive order since we learned it was on the way, and a variety of conservative groups pressured the White House to include an exemption.
Obama did no such thing. If an employer wants to discriminate against LGBT employees, it will have to decide whether that is a higher priority than doing business with the federal government.
As for the politics, one assumes congressional Republicans won't be pleased -- it advances an anti-discrimination policy they dislike and they tend to react poorly when the president relies on executive orders to advance his agenda.
That said, I'd expect the political fallout to be minimal. Most Americans assume LGBT Americans already enjoy anti-discrimination protections, suggesting Obama's latest move, while important, probably won't seem especially shocking to the American mainstream.