This story has been updated.
A flurry of news reports on Monday said President Obama has directed staff to prepare an executive order to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.
A White House official told The Huffington Post that the order would "build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin."
The strategy is to pressure the Republican-controlled House to enact the 20-year-old Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the act in November.
Gay groups hailed the breaking news. “This is a major step forward in the struggle for freedom and justice for LGBTQ workers and their families,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This decision is good for LGBTQ people, good for our economy and good for America. Unfortunately, many of us who don't work for federal contractors will still lack workplace protections. Now we must redouble our efforts for the urgent passage of state employment protections and strong federal legislation.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “The news is the culmination of six years of advocacy by the members and supporters of the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT and civil rights leaders, and allies on Capitol Hill. After 5 million emails and a mountain of compelling evidence, today’s announcement comes as welcome news to millions of LGBT workers around the country without essential employment protections.”
The campaign estimates that the order could affect 28 million workers, or 20 percent of the workforce. It also on Monday released a national survey of 1,200 registered voters that found that 63 percent favor a federal law that protects gay and transgender people from employment discrimination while only 25 percent oppose it. Its tally shows that 29 states allow employers to fire or refuse employment to a person based on sexual orientation -- and 32 states lack explicit laws banning discrimination based on gender identity.
A more cautionary response came from Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a contractors trade group. “There is already a range of existing laws and regulations designed to ensure equality in the workplace and federal contractors, like all employers, must comply with them,” he told Government Executive. “To the extent there is evidence that an executive order of this type will help advance our common commitment to those equal rights, we certainly support it. But it should also be noted that recent surveys have shown that some of the largest government contractors are already among the most progressive companies in this regard. Thus, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the E.O. is being issued as a proxy for broader legislation and not because there is any evidence of a particular problem among government contractors when it comes to equality of employment.”
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council, said, "Today's announced executive order will give activists a license to challenge their employers whenever they feel aggrieved, exposing those employers to threats of costly legal proceedings and the potential of jeopardizing future contracts. Furthermore, by requiring federal contractors to consider characteristics and behaviors related to a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, this policy will make contractors liable for protecting actual or perceived self-disclosed and fluid identities that may not even be known.”
He went on to say "the timing of this announcement is clearly designed to curry favor with activist organizations. While the president prepares to address a New York gathering of gay rights supporters, the American people will be left to sort out the costs to religious and constitutional liberties resulting from this executive order."