President Obama made headlines when he enacted an executive order last Monday (7/21) making it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring. This executive order is one modifying Executive Order 11246, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes for federal contractors prohibiting discrimination in the hiring process.
Obama's signature last Monday also amended an order signed by President Nixon in 1969 prohibiting discrimination based on age, race, gender, religion, nationality and disability for federal workers in the employment scenario. President Clinton previously modified Nixon's order to add sexual orientation to the list of protected categories, and now President Obama has modified it further to include gender identity as well, encompassing the full spectrum of LGBT individuals.
LGBT groups and organizations have heralded this move by President Obama as a historic stepping stone, and a deeply impactful recognition that LGBT individuals are worthy of federal protection and equal rights. While there are still no laws that protect all LGBT employees, including all those in the private sector, this move still represents a significant milestone for the LGBT community, and a significant step forward on the path towards social and legal equality.
LGBT groups and organizations have recently been at the head of political and legislative debate concerning the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has become embroiled in dispute in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case. As the legislation stands right now, there is an exemption for religiously affiliated employers, similar to the one at issue in the Hobby Lobby case.
Understandably, the LGBT community is concerned that such an exemption will empower religious employers to discriminate with impunity if it is permitted to remain a piece of the ENDA legislation. As a result, various LGBT groups and organizations have withdrawn their support for ENDA until the issue of the religious affiliation exemption is more appropriately addressed.
And speaking of religiously affiliated employers, various religious groups have voiced strong protestation regarding Obama's recent actions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has objected to these developments arguing that the current trajectory of the government on LGBT issues is tantamount to lending the government's economic power to a “deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality.” (Personally, I definitely agree that there are deeply flawed understandings of human sexuality at play here, but I don't think it's on the side of the government…)
Could this executive order be a proactive move by the President to set the precedent that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is intolerable before religiously affiliated employers have an opportunity to sink their teeth into a religious exemption to ENDA?
There's no way to say for sure, but regardless, LGBT equality still has a long way to go and there is still work to be done. Although 18 states and more than 200 local governments already ban sexual orientation discrimination, currently, more states allow same sex-sex marriage than prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.
Ultimately, the President's actions in signing these executive orders should affect some 28 million workers spread across 24,000 companies and comprising one-fifth of the work force in the United States, mandating that recipients of federal contracts must encompass LGBT employees within the scope of their anti-discrimination policies.
In support of his actions, Obama declared that it is “unacceptable” that sexual orientation and gender identity are still considered a firing offense in any workplace and that “it's time to address this injustice for every American.” A major part of the future for LGBT rights is of course in the hands of our Congress. So for now, the LGBT community will have to keep their eyes towards the hope that the members of Congress will work better together now and moving forward than they have in the recent past when it comes to remedying the legislative needs of the United States citizens.
Read the order here: Executive Order