Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A single step

Today the White House announced that the president will issue an executive order banning discrimination against LGBT employees by contractors doing business with the Federal government. While this is good news, it’s also far from perfect. Still, it’s an important step.

The executive order will protect some 28 million private sector workers—about 20% of the US workforce—from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is great news for the workers who will now be protected.

Even so, some on the Left have been wondering what took so long, since then-candidate Obama promised this back in 2008. Calls for an executive order grew louder when it became obvious that Republicans in the US House of Representatives would refuse to allow the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to even have committee hearings.

President Obama probably could have done this sooner, but it’s worth noting that doing this takes some of the pressure off of obstructionist Republicans. Even so, protecting 20% of the US workforce is better than nothing at all, even if much of the remaining 80% remains without protection and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Despite all that, the biggest threat here isn’t Republican obstructionism, nor does it really matter whether or not this could have come sooner. Instead, the biggest threat to all federal civil rights protections—laws and executive orders alike—could be the current rightwing fetish, “religious liberty”.

If the US Supreme Court rules in the Hobby Lobby case that private companies, claiming supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs” don’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employer-funded healthcare plans must fund contraception, then ALL federal laws to which the religious right objects could be undone.

This matters because if private companies are allowed to discriminate against LGBT people because of their supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs”, then there is absolutely NO reason why they shouldn’t also be able to discriminate against anyone they claim their religion commands them to reject: Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants (or just a different flavour of Protestant), Blacks, women, divorced people—whatever, it’s all instantly fair game. Testifying in front of a US House committee recently, one leading anti-gay bigot simply denied the obvious because he couldn’t come up with any logical reason why it wouldn’t be open season for discrimination based on supposedly “sincerely held religious beliefs”. That’s because, obviously, there ARE no reasons it couldn’t happen.

So, worst-case scenario, the executive order could become virtually unenforceable, and ENDA itself could be rendered toothless before it’s even passed, despite its “religious exemptions” that allow religious-based discrimination.

If the Supreme Court rules correctly and against Hobby Lobby, then these measures will continue to have strength and will continue to help make society more just and equal. That’s a big if at this point, though.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, we’ve already seen that the rightwing will take their “religious liberty” fetish as their new mission, ramping up their attempts to enshrine religious bigotry and the right to practice discrimination based on religious belief into state law. They will succeed in some places, but they’re likely to succeed in more states if the Supreme Court decides wrongly.

So, the upcoming executive order is important for its symbolism, and it’s potentially good news for some 20% of the American workforce. But it could end up being mere symbolism and, even if it doesn’t, it will remain only a start until ENDA (without its sweeping religious exemption) is passed and the other 80% of workers are fully covered.

This announcement is an important step in the journey to full equality for LGBT Americans. But it is only a single step. The road ahead is still very, very long.

Still, let's celebrate one more step in the right direction.


rogerogreen said...

I know it's the cliche, but my deeply held beliefs against war would justify me preventing an active service member from buying things at my store (if I had one)

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yes, exactly: If religious beliefs can justify discriminating against LGBT people, then they can be used to justify discrimination against everyone—it's not actually a Left/Right thing, since both could do it. Thanks for giving the chance to make that clear.