President Barack Obama plans to sign on Monday an executive order that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers from discrimination by federal contractors, the White House said. There is no new exemption for religious organizations.
The order bars federal contractors from discriminating against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and protects federal employees from discrimination based on their gender identity.
The move comes after the failure of the White House to have the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in Congress, and amid increasing calls by LGBT groups for a measure bypassing legislative approval.
The White House says the order will affect 24,000 companies and 8 million employees.
"Obama's executive order does not modify that Bush exemption" The Huffington Post quoted a senior administration official as saying. "It stands."
This means that the employers will be allowed to hire people based on their faith, but barred from discriminating against them based on sexual orientation.
The ENDA Senate bill, supported by almost all Democratic senator, included a religious exemption, stating: "This Act shall not apply to a corporation, association, educational institution or institution of learning, or society that is exempt from the religious discrimination provisions of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
"It would be better if the president could provide leadership that promotes tolerance all the way around rather than use the force of the state," The New York Times quoted Galen Carey, the vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, as saying.
LGBT groups have expressed gratitude to the Obama administration.
"With the strokes of a pen, the president will have a very real and immediate impact on the lives of millions of L.G.B.T. people across the country," Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "These actions from the president have the potential to be a keystone in the arch of his administration's progress, and they send a powerful message to future administrations and to Congress that anti-L.G.B.T. discrimination must not be tolerated."
Obama's move comes about a month after the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that closely held companies can invoke religious objections to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which forces all companies to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacients in employees' health care. In a five to four decision, the court ruled last month that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to privately owned businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods Specialties.
A senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal that the Hobby Lobby case didn't involve federal contracts. "We were comfortable moving forward with this executive order in light of Hobby Lobby," she said.
An executive order protecting employees of federal contractors from discrimination, including based on sex, is already in place but President George W. Bush amended it to include exemption for religiously affiliated federal contractors.
Obama plans to issue two orders on Monday.
One order will amend an executive order signed by President Johnson in 1965 that prevents federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, religion or national origin, by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to that list, according to Los Angeles Times.
The other order will amend an order issued by President Richard Nixon that prevents discrimination against federal employees on the basis of sex, race, disability and age. While President Clinton added sexual orientation to the list, Obama will now add gender identity to it.