Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

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Senator Calls on Interior to Reintstate References to LGBTQ Employees in Workplace Discrimination Guidance

Department says its policies have not changed and cites support for LGBTQ workers.

On Tuesday, a top Senate Democrat called on the Interior Department to reinstate langauge including LGBTQ employees in departmental guidance on workplace discrimination. In response, the department touted its efforts to protect such employees and said it complies with federal regulations on the matter.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt expressing concerns that “sexual orientation” was not included in a statement in updated department guidelines on workplace discrimination, as first reported by the Huffington Post. Feinstein said the change violated federal law and is inconsistent with modern workplace culture. The department, which has about 70,000 employees in 2,400 locations, rejected her claims. When asked why the change was made the department said its guidelines reflect federal regulations and a 1989 executive order on equal employment opportunities. 

“In addition to conflicting with existing law, the department’s new guidance is also inconsistent with the modern American workplace and effective employment policies,” Feinstein wrote. “According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2020 Corporate Equality Index report, approximately 93% of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies.” She called on the secretary to ensure the “professional and personal well-being” of the department’s LGBTQ employees. 

The Huffington Post reported in December:

Trump’s Interior Department removed “sexual orientation” from a statement in the agency’s ethics guide regarding workplace discrimination. “You shall adhere to all laws and regulations that provide equal opportunities for all Americans regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, or handicap,’ reads one of 14 principles of ethical behavior in the agency’s 2017 guidelines. The 2009 version President Barack Obama’s Interior Department issued included the categories “race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.”

Carol Danko, Interior spokeswoman, said the agency is compliant with all federal equal protection laws. “It’s unfortunate that so many groups have been misled by falsehoods generated by a poorly-researched Huffington Post article,” she said. “The Interior Department stands at the forefront in defending the rights of all employees and having a workplace free of harassment.  Under the leadership of Secretary Bernhardt, the department issued a policy extending protections from harassing conduct, which explicitly included the LGBTQ community. This policy did not exist under the Obama administration or any other previous administration.”

Robin Maril, associate legal director at the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit Human Rights Campaign, told the Huffington Post that although the change in guidance doesn’t impact the legal rights of LGBTQ federal employees, “departmental mission statements and guidance documents do set a tone for employees and for overall operations.” 

Feintstein argued the change in guidance is part of the Trump administration's overall agenda. She cited the administration’s Supreme Court brief that challenges the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission application that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The department said it will respond to Feinstein’s letter, but did not give an estimated timeframe.