President Barack Obama on Monday gave employment protection to gay and transgender employees in the federal government and its contracting agencies, citing the "irrefutable rightness" of LGBT workplace equality.
"America's federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people," Obama said at a signing ceremony from the White House East Room. He said it is unacceptable that you could be fired for being gay in most places in the United States.
It comes as the fight over a wider ban on anti-gay discrimination in the private sector becomes embroiled in a dispute over whether religious groups should get an exemption.
Until last month, Obama long resisted pressure to pursue an executive anti-discrimination order covering federal contractors in the hope that Congress would take more sweeping action banning anti-LGBT workplace discrimination across America. A bill to accomplish that goal — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — passed the Senate last year with some Republican support but has not been taken up by the GOP-controlled House.
Some prominent gay-rights and civil-rights organizations that had been longtime supporters of that bill announced earlier this month that they were withdrawing their support because of a broad religious exemption included to attract Republican votes.
Since Obama announced that he would take executive action, he has faced pressure from opposing flanks over whether he would include an exemption for religious organizations. He decided to maintain a provision that allows religious groups with federal contracts to hire and fire based on religious identity but not give them any exception to consider sexual orientation or gender identity. Churches also are able to hire ministers as they see fit.
Obama's action comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case that allowed some religiously oriented businesses to opt out of the federal health care law's requirement that contraception coverage be provided to workers at no extra charge. Obama advisers said that ruling has no impact on non-discrimination policies in federal hiring and contracting.
Obama said 18 states and more than 200 local governments already ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as a majority of Fortune 500 companies. But he noted that more states allow same-sex marriage than prohibit gay discrimination in hiring.
"It's not just about doing the right thing, it's also about attracting and retaining the best talent," Obama said.
The change for federal contracting will impact some 24,000 companies with 28 million workers, or one-fifth of the U.S. workforce.
Al Jazeera and wire services