President Obama plans to sign an executive order forbidding companies that do business with the federal government from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, fulfilling a goal that gay rights organizations have sought for years.
Currently, no federal law bans discrimination against gay and transgender individuals. Twenty-one states, including California and Illinois, and the District of Columbia bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but in the remaining 29 states, employers are free to fire, demote or otherwise discriminate against workers solely on the basis of sexual orientation.
Obama had tried for the last several years to get Congress to pass an antidiscrimination law that would apply to most employers in the country. But with those efforts going nowhere, he has now directed his staff to draft an executive order that would ban discrimination by federal contractors, White House officials said Monday.
Because companies that do business with the government make up about a fifth of the U.S. workforce, gay rights advocates say the change could provide employment protections for about 11 million workers whose rights are not protected under state laws.
Beyond the practical impact, the executive order, putting discrimination against gays and lesbians in the same category as racial or gender discrimination, marks another symbolic milestone for gay rights activists. An executive order by President Lyndon B. Johnson forbidding contractors from discriminating on the basis of race was a major element of the civil rights enforcement efforts of his administration.
"By issuing an executive order," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, "the president will not only create fairer workplaces across the country, he will demonstrate to Congress that adopting federal employment protections for [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people is good policy and good for business."
The Family Research Council, a prominent social conservative group, accused the White House of timing Monday's announcement to "curry favor with activist organizations," and noted that Obama was scheduled to speak to a fundraising gala of prominent lesbian and gay activists Tuesday evening in New York.
"While the president prepares to address a New York gathering of gay rights supporters, the American people will be left to sort out the costs to religious and constitutional liberties resulting from this executive order," said Peter Sprigg, a policy analyst for the group.
The decision to sign the order caps a long campaign by gay rights advocates, who have expressed repeated frustration this year that Obama had not acted. White House officials had defended the delay, saying they did not want to act unilaterally so long as there seemed to be a reasonable possibility of congressional action.
Although aides had suggested as long ago as 2011 that the outline of an executive order was ready, it wasn't until this spring that the White House began to edge toward action. Nearly 200 members of Congress wrote the president a letter in March asking him to sign the order. The list of signatories included all 17 of the Senate Democrats seeking reelection, even those from conservative-leaning states.
By then, a majority of Fortune 100 companies had adopted policies protecting workers based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or both. That reduced potential opposition from business groups, although some major corporations, including ExxonMobil, Abbott Laboratories and Archer Daniels Midland Co., do not have policies covering sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute. Those companies, which contract with the government, will now have to adopt new policies.
After the stepped-up support in Congress, presidential advisors suggested that the White House wanted to space out orders to contractors so as not to overburden them with several new mandates simultaneously. In February, Obama had issued an order raising the wages that contractors must provide their lowest-paid workers.
On Monday, as the president took a travel day to return from a Father's Day weekend trip to Palm Springs, White House officials confirmed plans to sign the order and began informing members of Congress.
The timing in part reflects political reality in a congressional election year — a tough one for Democrats — and a strong drive among party leaders to energize progressives as they head into a summer of fundraising.
The announcement coincided with LGBT Pride Month, held every June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, when members of the gay community rose up against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
Obama will mark the 45th anniversary of that event at Tuesday's Democratic National Committee LGBT gala.
Many of the wealthy gay activists likely to be present are trying to figure out how generous to be with Democrats at the midpoint of the Democratic president's second term, and leaders of gay activist groups are well aware of the Democrats' need for money in a year in which control of the Senate likely will turn on a handful of hotly contested races.
"They need money from gay donors to fuel the midterms," said one prominent activist, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss private conversations with Democratic officials.
Democratic aides said the White House's action also could help bring public pressure on House Republicans to take up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the measure Obama has been pushing that would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for employment decisions.
"So many people think that it's already federal law that you cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It's a problem for Republicans whenever people are reminded that that's not already the case and that the Republican House of Representatives is the only thing standing in the way," one aide said.
Still, it appears unlikely the House will change course. A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner had no comment on the White House's decision. The Ohio Republican said in November, after the Senate passed the antidiscrimination bill, 64 to 32, that he viewed it as unnecessary and thought it could spur frivolous lawsuits.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead author of the March letter to Obama, downplayed the idea that politics affected the timing of Obama's move.
"It's certainly a human rights motivation," he said.
Aides to the president did not say when the order would be completed nor when the president might sign it.
Kathleen Hennessey and Timothy M. Phelps in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.