Congress is a no-show on gay rights in the workplace

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Washington Post
  • Updated: June 17, 2014 - 6:02 PM

The courts and Obama have taken positive steps, but policymakers can do more to aid the cause.

The courts have made 2014 a year of rapid progress on gay and lesbian rights. Now President Obama is pitching in. That leaves Congress as the only branch that has yet to act.

Obama announced Monday that he will sign an executive order barring federal contractors, which employ about 20 percent of the national workforce, from discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgender people in their workplaces. The news was long overdue: The president promised to sign such an order in his 2008 campaign.

In a way it is encouraging that Obama moves strongly on gay and lesbian rights during election years, because it indicates that a movement that long struggled to gain a foothold in public opinion is succeeding.

Federal rules already prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion and sex. Sexual orientation and gender identity have been glaring exceptions. Yes, government contractors generally have their own nondiscrimination rules, so the immediate, practical effect of this executive order may be small. But that merely suggests that compliance won’t be difficult, not that the order is unnecessary.

The status quo, a pointedly incomplete nondiscrimination policy, is flatly unfair. Besides, assurances from private companies have neither the certainty nor force of law that federal action brings.

In fact, federal policymakers should be much more ambitious. Obama’s reason for waiting to sign this executive order is that he would have preferred a comprehensive nondiscrimination policy, which only Congress can approve. Though he was wrong to wait so long, he was not wrong that legislation — covering all workplaces, not just those in business with the federal government — is the right goal.

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