Obama Set to Bar Discrimination Against LGBT Workers, Without a Religious Exemption

July 18, 2014

On Monday, President Barack Obama will sign an executive order that will bar federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, according to news outlets. And, in a major win for advocates of secular government, the order will reportedly not include an exemption for religious organizations.

Last month, the Obama administration announced it would draft an executive order prohibiting companies which do business with the federal government from discriminating against prospective and current employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Soon after the announcement, more than 100 religious leaders wrote the the administration to demand that religious organizations be allowed to continue discriminating against LGBT Americans using taxpayer dollars (it is worth noting that, in a separate letter, 100 religious leaders took the opposite position). 

In contrast, the Center for Inquiry joined 97 religious, secularist, and civil rights organizations in urging Obama “to prohibit any discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion with taxpayer funds by all federal contractors, including religiously affiliated organizations.”

Today, news outlets reported that is exactly what Obama will do:

According to a senior administration official, Obama will amend Executive Order 11246, which prohibits federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin and was first issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. He will also amend Executive Order 11478, which prohibits discrimination against federal employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and age and was originally issued by President Richard Nixon in 1969, to also include gender identity. That executive order was previously amended by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to include sexual orientation. Although the Obama administration has previously interpreted existing law to cover transgender federal employees, the order will ensure federal employees will now be formally and explicitly protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

That means Obama’s order will also prohibit discrimination against transgender federal employees.  

Unfortunately, it appears Obama will not amend or reverse an executive order issued by former President George W. Bush that allows religiously affiliated federal contractors to favor individuals of the same faith in their hiring practices. Still, if accurate, today’s news represents a significant step forward for both LGBT rights, and the concept of a secular, religiously neutral government. 

Of course, the exemption-free order is not without its detractors. In particular, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative is complaining that barring religious groups which receive taxpayer funds from discriminating is a blow to religious liberty. 

For Dreher, religious organizations have a “right” to receive taxpayer funds in the form of government grants, and discriminate as they please. But Americans do not have the right to keep their taxpayer dollars from funding religious discrimination, and LGBT individuals applying for jobs funded by taxpayers do not have a right to not be discriminated against. (As Brian Beutler Tweeted in response to Dreher’s article: “It isn’t true religious liberty if you can’t refuse to hire gay people with your lucrative federal contract money.”)

Thankfully Obama saw through this narrow, sectarian view on religious liberty, and is going to do the right thing. As a result, all LGBT individuals — including those who work for religious federal contractors — will be protected from discrimination.