(Adds comment from White House spokesman, previous RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, June 16 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the White House said on Monday, handing another victory to gay rights activists.
Obama has pressed Congress to pass legislation to ban employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and resisted issuing an executive order in favor of pursuing a broader, legislative solution.
But the president has spent the year taking executive action on other domestic priorities where Congress has failed to make legislative headway, and activists have urged him to do the same on gay rights.
The White House said Obama had directed his staff to prepare the executive order but did not lay out a timetable for when he would sign it. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate but has languished in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“We’ve been waiting for quite a few months now for the House to take action, and unfortunately ... there aren’t particularly strong indications that Congress is prepared to act,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One when asked why Obama was making the move now.
Since coming into office, Obama helped end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military. After what he described as an evolution in his thinking, he backed gay marriage during his 2012 re-election campaign.
Activists lauded the latest move.
“The president will not only create fairer workplaces across the country, he will demonstrate to Congress that adopting federal employment protections for LGBT people is good policy and good for business,” said Chad Griffin, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Gay rights activist Richard Socarides, a former official in the Clinton administration, said it would send a clear message that the “U.S. government does not do business with those that discriminate.”
An order barring discrimination by federal contractors would apply to about 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to HRC. It would make it illegal for companies with U.S. government contracts to fire or avoid hiring employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as it now is with race.
Federal protections are necessary because state laws vary, activists say. In 29 states, it is legal to fire someone or deny employment because of sexual orientation, HRC said.
The move may energize gays and young people, two groups that make up an important part of Obama’s political base, ahead of congressional elections in November that could shift control of the Senate to Republicans.
The order also may increase pressure on the White House to take executive action on immigration. Similar to the non-discrimination order, Obama has resisted such a move while holding out hope that the House would advance broad legislation. (Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)