Obama Signs Historic LGBT Non-Discrimination Order

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Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 21 2014 10:40 AM

Obama Signs Historic LGBT Non-Discrimination Order

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Well done, Mr. President.

Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images

On Monday morning, President Obama signed an executive LGBT non-discrimination order, barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity among federal contractors. The order also protects all federal employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Crucially, Obama did not include the broad religious exemption that some faith leaders had begged the White House for. (These requested exemptions would have allowed religiously affiliated corporations to fire gay and trans workers with impunity.) The executive order does, however, preserve a Bush-era exemption that allows religiously affiliated contractors to continue to preference workers of a certain religion.

The president’s action on job discrimination is probably his biggest single gay rights accomplishment since signing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As the gay marriage battle draws to a close, Obama repeatedly targeted LGBT job discrimination as the next frontier of gay rights, urging Congress to outlaw it through federal legislation. But the Republican-controlled House has refused to countenace any sort of LGBT non-discrimination law, even after a bipartisan coalition pushed a weak bill through the Senate. That bill recently lost support from gay rights groups in the wake of Hobby Lobby thanks to its broad religious exemptions, officially flat-lining the effort for the foreseeable future.

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Obama’s executive order won’t help nearly as many workers as federal legislation would, though it’s estimated that his ordinance will protect an impressive 20 percent of the American labor force. His order is also a moral victory for the LGBTQ movement, which fretted that Hobby Lobby would lead to a new era of discrimination under the guise of religious liberty. Although the debate over religious exemptions remains fierce and unsettled, Obama’s refusal to hand religiously affiliated companies a special license to discriminate suggests his administration has not bought into the notion that legalizing bigotry is necessary to preserve religious freedom. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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