President Barack Obama on Monday signed an executive order that protects the rights of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender workers from discrimination and bias by federal contractors. United Church of Christ leaders applauded the move as another step forward in the recognition of LGBT rights.
"The federal government protects against discrimination based on gender, race, religion, nationality, age and disability," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, a national officer of the church. "So why shouldn’t it protect employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity?"
The order also prohibits any bias against federal employees based on gender identity. They have been protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1998.
According to the White House, the executive order will affect 24,000 companies nationwide with federal contracts that collectively employ 28 million people, which is about one-fifth of the nation’s workforce. The order will likely take effect in 2015 after the U.S. Labor Department has a chance to write the rules to implement it.
The UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries had worked with members of Congress to get an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed, but it stalled, prompting the White House to act with the executive order. ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
JWM’s basis for supporting the policy dates back four decades, to the 10th General Synod (1975). That General Synod declared, "[D]iscrimination related to sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other civil liberties, inflicts an incalculable burden of fear into the lives of persons in society and in the church whose orientation is toward persons of the same gender."
One part of the executive order gaining attention, and pushback, by part of the faith community, is that religious contractors are not exempt from its enforcement. The order maintains a previous provision that allows religious groups with federal contracts to hire and fire based upon religious identity. But religious organizations, which make up a small amount of federal contracts, were given no wiggle room to consider sexual orientation or gender identity.
"I cannot see why religious freedom and anti-discrimination are two mutually distinctive ideas, especially when considering federal contractors that are funded in part by taxpayer dollars," Jaramillo said. "Federal money has no part flowing into an organization that discriminates — on any basis — against a taxpaying citizen."
While religious groups might squawk at the notion of complying with the order, companies that contract with the federal government did not raise the same protest. The Washington Post reports that 92 percent of employees of federal contractors in the Fortune 1,000 are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.
"The federal government extended benefits to all legally married couples for more than a year, which was an important part in recognizing LGBT couples," Jaramillo said. "This executive order protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination and bias by federal contractors will go even further in recognition of equal rights for all."