Apr. 8, 2004 – The government agency responsible for protecting the rights of federal employees issued a reversal today of an earlier decision to end its policy protecting workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Congressional Democrats and gay rights activists began pressuring the Bush administration in February after the head of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) put the policy of protecting gay workers from discrimination on hold pending a legal review.
The OSC is charged with protecting whistleblowers and investigating and prosecuting accusations of discrimination filed by federal employees and applicants. The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act prohibits workplace discrimination "on the basis of conduct which does not adversely affect the performance of the employee or applicant or the performance of others."
The current head of the agency, Scott Bloch, who was appointed by the Bush administration in January 2004, stated earlier this year that sexual orientation did not count as protected "conduct" under the law, reports the Associated Press. But after a rebuke from the White House, Bloch appeared to change his position today, announcing that his agency will protect workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
According to the website Gay News Now, language referring to discrimination based on sexual orientation was removed from the agency's complaint form, basic brochure, training slides and other material. Gay News Now also reports that a June 2003 press release announcing a settlement in a case against the Internal Revenue Service for discrimination based on sexual orientation was removed from the OSCâ€™s site. PlanetOut.com reports that Bloch said these changes were necessary in order to avoid creating a "protected class" of workers.
Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists and democratic lawmakers immediately began pressuring the White House to fire Bloch, according to PlanetOut. They said that Bloch had overstepped his authority and violated an Executive Order issued by former President Clinton and reaffirmed by President Bush.
Last week, according to the AP, White House spokesperson Trent Duffy issued a rebuke of Bloch's policy, saying, "The president believes that no federal employee should be subject to unlawful discrimination. That's long-standing federal policy that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation."
A week later Blotch announced that the review of the OSC's authority to process claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation had concluded that the OSC did have such authority. "OSC has always enforced claims of sexual orientation discrimination based on actual conduct," he said in the agencyâ€™s press release.
As for the revised forms and information on the OSC website, Blotch said he believes the materials currently on the OSC website are consistent with the law, but that the OSC intends to "review and revise those materials as necessary to ensure that employees are fully aware of the protections provided."
However, LGBT employees and allies are still concerned. "The important thing is implementation," Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Employees (Federal GLOBE) told PlanetOut. "Weâ€™ll be working with the administration to make sure every agency and every office has the procedures in place that backs this policy."
Though today's announcement represents a restoration of rights for federal employees, most workers throughout the US are not protected from sexuality-based discrimination. According to Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT rights advocacy organization, it is legal in 36 states to fire workers on the basis of sexual orientation, and in 46 states a worker can be legally fired on the basis of gender identity or expression.
The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission prohibits workplace discrimination to at least a certain extent on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, religion and sex; but sexual orientation is not protected.