President Barack Obama is facing increased pressure to sign an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity after 37 senators sent a letter to the president today urging him to act.
"We are committed to enacting legislation to protect all Americans," the senators – all supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) – write. "In the meantime, you are in a position to protect millions of American workers immediately by including sexual orientation and gender identity alongside long-standing anti-discrimination protections."
The letter comes after a renewed focus on workplace protections for LGBT people. Although Obama publicly supports ENDA, he has backed off of his support for an executive order after indicating as a candidate for president in 2008 that he would sign such an order.
First signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Executive Order 11246 has been expanded by a number of presidents to prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, such an executive order would protect up to 16.5 million workers.
"It's outrageous that in the year 2013, it is still legal to fire someone based on who they love," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is the lead sponsor of ENDA in the Senate, said in statement. "The President can protect millions of workers from unfair discrimination with the stroke of a pen. I'm pleased that 36 of my colleagues have joined together to push for more equality in the workplace."
The 37 senators join 72 members of the House of Representatives and nearly 175,000 Americans who have signed a Freedom to Work petition urging Obama to "keep a campaign promise and sign an executive order to protect taxpayer money from being squandered on harassment and discrimination against LGBT Americans," according to Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work.
"An executive order from President Obama would ensure that hundreds of thousands of LGBT federal contract employees could go to work every day without fear of being fired for who they are or who they love," added Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement.
During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama alluded to workplace protections for LGBT people, stating, "It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."
The White House has repeatedly said the administration would rather see ENDA passed and all workers protected instead of just federal contractors. As recently as Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters the president believes "we ought to move forward with congressional comprehensive action on this issue, and we will continue to press Congress to do that."
White House spokesman Shin Inouye reiterated that position today, giving no updates on the executive order called for by the 37 senators.
"The President has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and his Administration will continue to work to build support for it," Inouye told Metro Weekly. "We welcome Chairman Harkin's announcement that he will hold a vote on ENDA this year."
However, advocates have argued Obama could protect at least some workers now and build momentum for ENDA, which has faced decades of Republican opposition.
Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said action will be taken on ENDA this year.
"We're going to move ENDA this year," Harkin declared during an event at the Center for American Progress.
Although ENDA may finally see movement in the Senate after years of delay, it remains unlikely to gain the same traction in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
UPDATE: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups, also sent a letter to the White House today urging Obama to sign the executive order for federal contractors.
Dear Mr. President,
On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 210 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States, we write to urge you to build on your record of promoting equality by signing an executive order to ban federal contractors from engaging in workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Leadership Conference agrees with your recent remarks in your second inaugural address that “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” and believes that issuing an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees helps promote equality for all individuals under the law.
The Leadership Conference was founded on the principle that all individuals should be afforded equal opportunity. An executive order banning discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity would ensure that federal contractors can no longer discriminate. While many businesses and states have extended equal treatment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, a large number of federal contractors who employ millions of workers do not currently have such non-discrimination policies in place. This executive order would ensure that that there are workplaces in every state with legally binding protections for LGBT individuals. Research by the Williams Institute shows that an executive order will provide 11 million additional employees protection against sexual orientation discrimination and 16 million employees will be protected against gender identity discrimination.
This executive order would also be good for businesses and U.S. taxpayers. Most of the top government contractors already have LGBT non-discrimination policies, and they adopted them because they realize that discrimination hurts the bottom line.
The Leadership Conference strongly urges you to take executive action to prevent further workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals by issuing the executive order as soon as possible. Thank you for your consideration.
President & CEO
Executive Vice President
Read the letter from the 37 senators here: