Obama had frustrated many of his supporters last year when he declined to issue an executive order that would protect workers at companies with government contracts from bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
At the time, activists believed the administration was making a political decision based on the looming election. White House officials said Obama was waiting for Congress to pass broader legislation that would prohibit all employers from discriminating against gay workers.
"Getting past an election always uncomplicates things," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights advocacy group. "We intend to pick up the issue once again and ask the president to do this."
Current federal law bans discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin, but it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire a worker based on sexual orientation.
White House spokesman Shin Inouye said this week that the Obama administration is not ready "at this time" to issue an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against gays.
The push for Obama to act comes as legal recognition of gay rights has gradually expanded: Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nine states and D.C. have legalized same-sex marriage.
Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases that could further expand gay marriage rights. Gay rights groups are hoping the administration files briefs in the case to argue that gay marriage is protected by the Constitution. Obama has so far insisted gay marriage is a state issue, and White House spokesman Jay Carney reaffirmed that stance Tuesday in response to questions about the president's inaugural speech.
Gay supporters have been a loyal constituency for Obama, helping him raise millions for his re-election campaign. And they have been grateful for the president's first-term decisions to back same-sex marriage and repeal the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, allowing gay soldiers to serve openly for the first time.
But job discrimination remains one of the last barriers for gay workers, and activists say it's unrealistic to expect Congress with a Republican-controlled House to revise discrimination laws anytime soon. Those efforts have failed to make headway in Congress for more than a decade.
In the meantime, an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors would affect more than 20 percent of the workforce about 16 million workers. And some advocates believe an executive order could provide the spark that gets Congress to act.
"There's clear research that shows LGBT people face high rates of discrimination in the workplace, and we need to pursue every possible policy solution to that problem," said Jeff Krehely, vice president of LGBT research at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
Randel Johnson, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for labor issues, said business owners might have some concerns with an executive order, depending on how it was drafted, with new paperwork and enforcement requirements.
"Executive orders are often enforced through the severe sanction of debarment from federal contracts, so they must be carefully and narrowly structured," Johnson said.
Otherwise, the Chamber has taken no official position on congressional efforts to pass broader legislation prohibiting discrimination against gay workers.
Many Fortune 500 companies already include bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation in their workplace, and many others include gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, welcomed Obama's inaugural remarks, calling him "the most pro-LGBT president in American history." But she said it's also time for the president "to finish the job of ensuring that every American gets a fair shake."
Her group's agenda includes an executive order covering anti-gay discrimination by federal contractors, passage of broader federal legislation covering all employers and repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
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