President Obama Bans LGBT Discrimination, No Religious Exemption

President Obama signed an executive order Monday expanding the protections for federal workers and contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “In too many states and in too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fireable offense,” Obama said. “So I firmly believe that it’s time to address this injustice for every American.”

There are 29 states that have no laws to protect gay, lesbian, or bisexual employees from being fired for their real or perceived sexual orientation. In 34 states there are no protections for transgender employees. That means that technically someone can be fired in these states for being LGBT.

The president’s Executive Order bans discrimination against LGBT persons in federal employment. The order also bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for companies receiving federal contracts.

The order is the single largest expansion of LGBT workplace protections in the nation’s history, protecting one-fifth of the entire U.S. labor force. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, President Obama’s action is estimated to extend protections to about 14 million workers whose employers or states currently do not have such nondiscrimination policies.

“President Obama’s decision to protect LGBT workers contracting with the federal government is a powerful sign that our nation continues to make progress on expanding equality and opportunity to all. But the fight on this issue is far from over,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a national civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black LGBT people and ending racism and homophobia. “It’s beyond troubling that more states permit marriage equality than prohibit LGBT discrimination in the workplace. What sense does it make to be able to marry, but have to live in fear of losing your job simply because of who you are or who you love? This injustice must be made right by Congress passing nondiscrimination protections for all of our nation’s workers, no matter their backgrounds. ”

Several prominent faith leaders had called on the president to include a religious-based exception to the executive order, following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case June 30. In a blow to Obama’s health-care reform, the court ruled that closely held companies do not have to provide coverage for certain contraception or abortion-inducing drugs if it conflicts with the owners’ religious beliefs.

To the relief of the LGBT community, there is no sweeping religious exemption in the executive order. President Obama simply added the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing executive order that protects employees of federal contractors from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. President George W. Bush amended that executive order in 2002 to allow religiously affiliated contractors to favor employees of a certain religion in making hiring decisions.

For 40 years, Congress has debated several pieces of legislation meant to address LGBT workplace equality with no success achieved, adds Lettman-Hicks. This lack of advancement has had a devastating impact on LGBT workers of color. NBJC’s co-authored report, A Broken Bargain For LGBT Workers of Color, illustrates how LGBT workers who live at the intersections of race and both gender identity and sexual orientation face tremendous odds when trying to secure and maintain employment. For example, national surveys of black LGBT people put rates of employment discrimination near 50%.

“Black LGBT people are significantly disadvantaged when they lack nondiscrimination protections in the workplace. NBJC will not rest until all qualified American workers, including our black LGBT brothers and sisters, have the ability to secure a good, quality job to take care of themselves and their families,” she stresses.

With the signing of this Executive Order, President Obama builds upon his Administration’s stellar record of improving the lives of LGBT people. The Obama Administration’s LGBT victories include: signing a federal hate crimes law; repealing the military’s discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” the Department of Justice’s move to stop defending the “Defense of Marriage Act;” and the expansion of health care coverage to the LGBT community, with an emphasis on addressing LGBT health care disparities.