WASHINGTON – The White House is embroiled in a debate over whether to reverse some key protections the Obama administration extended to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, according to several people briefed on the process.
A draft of a potential executive order began circulating in Washington over the weekend that would overturn President Barack Obama’s directive barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the federal workforce and by federal contractors.
But individuals familiar with deliberations within the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made, said that the details of the policy remain in flux and that it is far from certain that President Donald Trump would ultimately issue such an order.
That top officials are debating whether to wade into the issue of gay and transgender rights highlights the tension the new administration faces when it comes to social issues. Trump campaigned on an economic message, but he is under pressure from the social conservatives who propelled him into office to implement their top priorities.
The issue of gay rights is particularly fraught for Vice President Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana signed a controversial measure expanding religious liberties in a way that gay rights groups said opened the door to legalized discrimination. A national outcry over the bill led Pence and the state Legislature to weaken the measure.
Speaking to reporters Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on whether an executive order affecting gay and transgender people was under consideration.
“I’m not getting ahead of the executive orders that we may or may not issue,” Spicer said. “There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now.”
The executive order Obama signed in 2014 had two parts. It expanded protections in federal hiring, which already barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, to also include gender identity. And it required all companies doing business with the federal government to have explicit policies barring discrimination against gay and transgender workers.
The move was significant because it applied to 24,000 companies that collectively employed about 28 million workers – representing about a fifth of the U.S. workforce.
But the order drew sharp criticism from religious leaders because it did not provide an exemption for religious organizations that contract with the government, such as Catholic Charities. Many other faith-based groups receive federal funding to assist people with housing, disaster relief and hunger. The critics included many faith leaders who at the time were Obama allies.
Gay rights groups argued such an exemption would amount to a loophole giving groups the right to discriminate.
Any attempt by the Trump administration to rescind or weaken Obama’s order would essentially be an effort to “authorize discrimination” against gay and transgender people, said James Esseks, director of the LGBT program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The Trump administration has shown that it’s willing to go against core American values of freedom and equality, and it’s troubling to hear they may target LGBT people as well,” he said.
But he said the impact might be mitigated because federal law bans discrimination on the basis of sex. Many courts have interpreted discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity to be a form of sex discrimination.
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