Commentary Law and Policy

Why Paycheck Fairness But Not ENDA? Did Obama Run Out of Ink?

Erin Matson

President Obama wasted an opportunity this week, and I'm willing to be the feminist advocate to say it. When he signed two executive orders extending critical provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act, he addressed only some employment discrimination, and equality for some is not equality for women.

President Obama signed two executive orders extending critical provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act to federal contractors on Tuesday, National Equal Pay Day. One of the orders means federal contractors can’t get fired for discussing their salaries with one another.

As a women’s rights advocate who has at various points in my career worked closely on the Paycheck Fairness Act, I must in good conscience blow the kazoo on all the celebrations taking place within my community. The president addressed only some employment discrimination on Tuesday, and equality for some is not equality for women.

Today, federal contractors join everyone else in remaining free to fire, not hire, and otherwise discriminate against women, as well as men, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So women working for federal contractors can’t get fired for trying to figure out if they’re getting paid fairly, but they can get fired for coming out. Got it.

Let’s back up: We’re discussing executive orders because it’s the only practical way to make progress in the foreseeable future. Congress isn’t acting nearly fast enough on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which addresses wage discrimination against women, nor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which addresses employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can’t be bothered to bring them up between his efforts to cut food stamps and sneak in a glass of merlot.

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On the Senate side, chicanery rules the day on both bills. Wednesday marked the third time the Paycheck Fairness Act failed to pass, falling to yet another Republican filibuster. (That the right is openly flailing and flopping in its efforts to show women they care about something other than restraining our libidos did not appear to influence the dynamic on the floor; even all the Republican women voted no.)

On ENDA, the Senate at last voted to pass it last November, but not without tacking on a dangerous cluster of religious exemptions that leave too many people behind. In particular, parochial schools can continue discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and raking in government dollars, all while receiving protections from being required to comply with ENDA in order to keep their funding.

The implication is not abstract. Archdioceses that operate Catholic schools are struggling for cash, and want it all ways. They want to be able to take in secular dollars, and they want to continue practicing various forms of employment discrimination that they claim are an expression of faith. They also want to protect themselves from lawsuits for firing people who did nothing wrong on the job but manage to have personal lives the all-male hierarchy disagrees with (that would be most people). In one instructive example, last year a Catholic teacher fired for using artificial insemination to become pregnant was awarded $171,000 in a discrimination lawsuit.

Could the religious exemptions baked within ENDA be dictating President Obama’s failure to sign the executive order version that would apply to federal contractors? It’s a wise question of radio host Michelangelo Signorile and others to raise. After all, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continue to appear very much committed to enforcing the most discriminatory aspects of its doctrine in the U.S. Capitol Dome, no matter what the Pope says. It’s a lobby the president may not wish to upset once again.

In any case, the president is continuing to upset many of us who would like him to succeed. Recently Andrew Tobias, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, expressed frustration with the president for failing to make good on his promise to LGBTQ advocates to sign an ENDA executive order targeting federal contractors. Others are calling for him to make the announcement on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But let’s be honest, he wasted an opportunity on National Equal Pay Day, and I’m willing to be the feminist advocate to say it. What’s the excuse? Did President Obama run out of ink? We’ve got plenty of pens.

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