On Tuesday, President Obama fulfilled a six-year-old campaign promise to protect people working for federal contractors from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It was a welcome, if long overdue, executive order made necessary by the failure of Congress to pass legislation.
Obama’s order extends the protections from workplace discrimination already provided to LGBT workers in 18 states, including the state of Washington. Employees of federal contractors comprise 20 percent of the nation’s workforce.
In a fair and just world, Congress would respond to Obama’s prodding by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been introduced to nearly every session of Congress since 1994 – except for the 109th – without success. Congress considered and rejected similar measures for 20 years before ENDA, dating back to 1974.
It’s time for Congress to acknowledge the shift in public opinion nationwide that strongly supports for equal rights, including both workplace protections and same-sex marriage.
In a moment of political courage, and perhaps as a statement to the U.S. Supreme Court, Obama did not cave in to the demand by a few right-wing religious leaders to include a Hobby Lobby-style religious exemption in his order. That would have opened the door for federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of their own religious beliefs.
Instead, Obama wisely chose to heed the advice of 100 spiritual leaders who urged the president not to include a religious exemption. They included leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
This executive order partly atones for Obama’s inaction on a 2008 campaign pledge to protect LGBT workers. The LGBT community has justifiably criticized the president’s inconsistency, noting that he promoted the end of discrimination in the military and spoke out in support of same-sex marriage.
Washington state residents can be proud that our Legislature banned discrimination against LGBT people in employment, insurance and housing in 2006. No thanks to Sen. Tim Sheldon from the 35th District.
Sheldon crossed the floor eight years ago to join conservative GOP members in voting against House Bill 2661 that expanded the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission to include the prohibiting of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Former senator, now Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and his predecessor Cal Anderson had championed it for years.
But it was a genuine maverick Republican, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland, who had recently stepped down as the Senate GOP leader, who crossed the aisle and gave gay rights activists the vote they needed. Finkbeiner was the lone GOP member to vote “yes.”
With Obama’s executive order, this nation has taken another positive step toward living up to the promise of equality for all enshrined in our nation’s constitution. It’s now up to Congress to extend this freedom from discrimination to every U.S. resident.