GOP should back common-sense anti-discrimination executive order

In polls going back several decades, an overwhelming majority of Americans have opposed discrimination against gays in the workplace, whether that workplace is public or private. In May 2008, Gallup found that 87 percent of Americans favor employment nondiscrimination laws. In December 2008, Newsweek also found 87 percent of Americans support such laws.

While it may surprise some, a majority of Republicans oppose anti-gay employment discrimination. A 2007 poll by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio showed an overwhelming 77 percent of Republicans opposed anti-gay employment discrimination, while a 2011 poll by the Center for American Progress showed 66 percent of Republicans opposed anti-gay employment discrimination. Protecting gay and lesbian workers from on-the-job discrimination is simply no longer a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be.

It’s been illegal for the federal government to discriminate against federal workers on the basis of sexual orientation since 1995, when then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning the practice. Although some on the right opposed the order, the Bush administration, a favorite of social conservatives, renewed it, stating in 2005 that “longstanding federal policy prohibits discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation. … President Bush expects federal agencies to enforce this policy and to ensure that all federal employees are protected from unfair discrimination at work.” It’s hard to understand how any American could disagree with him.

Most Americans instinctively understand that it’s wrong for government at any level to discriminate against the very citizens who financially support it and who are required to obey its laws. And yet the fact is that when federal taxpayer dollars are doled out to federal contactors — private companies that provide goods and services to the federal government — those companies are not required to practice the same workplace fairness the federal government has extended to its employees for the past 18 years. This loophole is morally repugnant.

Last year alone, $250 billion worth of federal tax dollars were awarded to federal contractors in states where job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is still legal. While previous presidential executive orders have covered other groups that have historically been discriminated against, e.g., racial and ethnic minorities, a new executive order from the president is required to extend nondiscrimination protection to gay and lesbian employees of federal contractors in states that do not have their own anti-discrimination laws. This proposed new order would cover an additional 20 percent of the civilian workforce, or about 16 million workers who are now unprotected.

Inexplicably, President Obama, certainly the most pro-gay rights president ever, has so far refused to issue such an executive order, even after repeated requests from his core supporters. It’s inexplicable that a president who has come out in support of the far more controversial policy of marriage equality cannot bring himself to wipe out workplace discrimination for millions of Americans with a mere stroke of his pen. There is simply no political downside to doing so, so his inaction has many scratching their heads.