GOP should back common-sense anti-discrimination executive order

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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.

Those on the right should show no such reticence. Conservatives, in fact, have two very good reasons for supporting an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against gay people. The first is philosophical. It is simply wrong for the government, any government, to take tax dollars from a specific group of citizens and then turn around and deny them equal access to the jobs and benefits those tax dollars provide. One can certainly make a conservative or libertarian case that private-sector companies and organizations should be free to set their own employment policies, but one cannot legitimately make that case when the company in question is on the government dole. There is no such thing as the right to discriminate against the very same taxpayers who are providing your income.

The second reason is purely practical. The Republican Party is currently on a collision course with demographic reality. Its core coalition of supporters — white men, seniors and Christian conservatives — is shrinking. Younger voters, especially those under 30, are overwhelmingly pro-gay rights and pro-gay marriage (including young Republicans). So are the independents and libertarian-leaning voters whose support the Republican Party desperately needs. Calling for this new executive order is one of the first (if modest) steps Republicans can take to demonstrate they understand what the party must do to gain new supporters.

The Republican National Committee recently released its “autopsy” report on what went wrong in the 2012 election. The report wisely discussed reaching out to more voters, specifically immigrants and gay people, as part of the GOP’s efforts to broaden its appeal, but it will take much more than sound bites to actually change the voting patterns of those who are now opposed to the Republican Party. It will take a complete re-examination of how to apply the party’s principles of limited government and individual liberty to issues it has up to now ignored or shunned.

If Republicans can help promote a policy of employment nondiscrimination for gay and lesbian Americans that is 1) supported by an overwhelming percentage of the American people, 2) consistent with the GOP’s limited government philosophy, and 3) is the politically smart thing to do, why — unless it has a death wish — would the GOP do otherwise? Those who support this executive order can sign Freedom to Work’s online petition in support of it, and Republicans who want to push the party squarely into the 21st century should be the first in line.

David Lampo is the author of “A Fundamental Freedom: Why Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians Should Support Gay Rights (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). He serves on the national board of Log Cabin Republicans.

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