Civil Rights

Obama executive orders fight discrimination

Twenty-eight million Americans will go to work this week with a new freedom– the freedom to work without fear of being fired for who they are, or who they love.

For many it will be for the first time. President Obama on Monday ended decades of taxpayer-funded discrimination by signing a pair of executive orders.  As a result, more than one in five American workers can breathe easier knowing that they cannot be passed up for employment or a promotion simply based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  With this executive action, President Obama joins presidents of both parties in using the power of the office to ensure that every federal contractor will be required to judge their employees on the merits of their work and not their identities.

{mosads}Workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is a real and pernicious problem. Studies have shown that nearly 43 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual people have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace. For the transgender community that number is closer to 90 percent. Nearly a quarter of transgender workers surveyed have reported being passed up for a promotion or employment and a similar number report having been fired outright. As marriage equality makes great strides in state after state, it is unreasonable that those who are finally able to marry the one they love still risk their careers for putting a photo of their spouse their desk.

With the initial announcement of this order came concerns that in protecting the LGBT community from discrimination, this act infringes on the rights of others to practice their faith.  To be clear, freedom of religion is a core American value and nothing in this order changes the protections all Americans enjoy to worship as they see fit. Nor does it remove the ability of religious contractors to select their employees based on an applicant’s stated faith. It balances the need for religious liberty and equal opportunity that are core pillars of American society. To protect one set of values at the expense of another is anathema to the meaning of those values in the first place.

This is a point not lost on most people of faith. Rather than being a dividing line, support for workplace protections instead unifies Americans, including overwhelming majorities of Catholics, Protestants, members of the Jewish faith, and observant and born-again Christians. Countless religious leaders and lay persons across varied denominations demonstrate every day that living a faith-driven life and supporting LGBT people are not mutually exclusive. 

This is a watershed moment for the expansion of equal rights in this country and, combined with the ending of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell three years ago, will be a significant part of President Obama’s legacy. It is also an act that stresses fairness for the LGBT community in a way that does not impinge on religious rights. As the country grapples with the religious and policy ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, this executive order shows that public policies that end discrimination against the LGBT community can coexist alongside the religious rights of all Americans. The two do not have to contradict one another and Americans do not have to choose between them. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama has done more than protect the livelihoods of thousands of LGBT workers– he has demonstrated that respect for religion and fundamental fairness are American values, and he’s shown that we can end the cycle of vulnerability for hard-working LGBT Americans.

Stachelberg is executive vice president for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress.


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