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Employment Law

No Exemption for Religious Groups in Obama Order on LGBT Hiring


President Barack Obama speaks during a reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month as First Lady Michelle Obama watches on June 30 in the East Room of the White House in Washington

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during a reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month as First Lady Michelle Obama watches on June 30 in the East Room of the White House in Washington

By executive order, President Obama today is banning federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.

The new order, which Obama first signaled he’d sign last month—years after promising it during the 2008 presidential campaign—doesn’t include any new language leaving religious organizations out of its discrimination protections.

But there is a potential loophole: Obama’s new order adds LGBT protections to an existing order signed decades ago by President Lyndon Johnson concerning discrimination by contractors, and that order already has an exception letting a religious group hire only people “of a particular religion” to carry out its work. That language “could potentially used as a cudgel against LGBT people,” Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz said last month. It remains to be seen if any religious groups that have federal contracts will try to argue that their “particular religion” requires being straight and thus that they should be allowed to discriminate.

Along with the protection for contracted workers, Obama’s executive order bans the federal government from discriminating against its own employees for being transgender. While the Obama administration’s Office of Personnel Management had already announced a nondiscrimination policy that includes gender identity, an executive order comes with greater heft. Beyond the religious exemption, the LGBT order stirred little public pushback from top Republicans—the latest sign of the issue’s shifting politics.

Eidelson is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington.

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