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(Washington, DC) – An executive order signed by President Barack Obama on July 21, 2014, is a significant step toward ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the workplace in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today.

The executive order prohibits workplace discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity by companies awarded federal contracts and outlaws discrimination based on gender identity for federal employees. The order does not include new religious exemptions, despite calls from some prominent faith leaders to include sweeping exemptions.

“President Obama’s executive order barring workplace discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity will protect the rights of millions of American workers,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Obama’s unwillingness to add religious exemptions sends a strong message that religious beliefs should never be used to justify discrimination.”   

An executive order is a presidential policy directive that does not require congressional approval and can be revoked by future administrations.  Congress should enact these anti-discrimination provisions into federal law, Human Rights Watch said.

The executive order builds on previous anti-bias legislation by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of existing protections that federal contractors are required to follow. By including gender identity as a protected category for federal employees, the order for the first time will protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Federal employees are already protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The order will have far-reaching effects given that about 24,000 companies contract with the US government, representing some 28 million workers.

The executive order retains limited religious exemption language from a 2002 order by President George W. Bush that allows for companies to factor in religious beliefs in their hiring practices.

The presidential action comes in the wake of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the family-run company could withhold insurance coverage for contraception to employees on religious grounds. The court’s broad interpretation of religious exemption could set a precedent undermining protections for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people on religious grounds, Human Rights Watch said.

Obama said he was motivated to sign the executive order after the long-awaited Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) stalled in Congress. ENDA, which includes a religious exemption, has also lost support from some former backers in light of the implications of the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. That ruling could make the act ineffectual as an anti-discrimination measure, given its exemption for employers who object to homosexuality on religious grounds.

“Religious concerns are unfortunately becoming synonymous for discrimination with an acceptable face,” Reid said. “Discrimination is discrimination regardless of how it is justified. The executive order makes clear that religious groups, like anyone else, should not be exempt.” 

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