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White House agency head erasing ‘sexual orientation’ from protection against bias

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Some gay and lesbian federal workers would lose protection against sexual orientation discrimination if the office charged with enforcing a nearly 30-year-old statute decides their complaints fall outside the scope of the law.

In February, the new head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Scott Bloch, removed all references to sexual orientation from its Web site, brochures, training slides and complaint forms while he reviews the 1978 law that has been the basis for the investigation of such complaints.

On Wednesday, House and Senate Democrats asked Bloch to reverse his decision and reaffirm his commitment to protecting the rights of all federal employees, or else resign from the position he has held only since January.

In a letter to the White House, they also called on President Bush, who appointed Bloch to the independent agency, to uphold policies prohibiting sexual orientation bias against federal workers that have been embraced by administrations since the Reagan era.

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"Many of us believed the issue of discriminating against gay and lesbian people had been resolved years ago. Evidently, based on the people the Bush administration appoints to key employment-rights jobs, we were wrong," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who was joined by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Bloch, a 45-year-old trial lawyer from Kansas, said he is committed to enforcing nondiscrimination in the federal workplace based on conduct that does not adversely affect job performance, regardless of sexual orientation.

But critics say his actions are part of an emerging pattern of anti-gay behavior from the Bush administration in an election year intensified by the gay marriage issue and calls for a constitutional amendment, supported by Bush, defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"We put this squarely in the lap of President Bush," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay civil rights organization. "That's a sad comment on President Bush's legacy that while discrimination is being stamped out in corporate America, Bush is starting a brush fire in the federal government."

Bloch rejects claims that he was directed by Bush to make the changes. "This is simply not true," he said.

Sexual orientation complaints account for less than 1 percent of all cases filed with the Office of Special Counsel each year. The agency primarily handles whistleblower claims and is plagued by a backlog of some 500 cases.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said this week that the president believes no federal employee should be subjected to unlawful discrimination. "The administration will and does continue to vigorously enforce the law," she said.

But critics say Bloch's actions go directly against guidelines established as far back as 1980 by the federal Office of Personnel Management that list sexual orientation discrimination among prohibited personnel actions under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

The act protects federal employees from adverse job actions involving conduct unrelated to job performance. President Clinton reaffirmed the government's position in a 1998 executive order.

Bloch draws a distinction between "conduct" as a gay man or lesbian and one's "status" of being gay or lesbian.

"I cannot go beyond my legal authority or jurisdiction in enforcing the law as special counsel," he said.

He said his predecessor, Elaine Kaplan, improperly extended protections under the law. Kaplan denies the charge, saying it was widely accepted in the executive branch that gay and lesbian federal workers were protected some 20 years before her tenure began in 1998.

"The (Office of Personnel Management) position has always been and still is that this law does prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation," Kaplan said.

Kaplan said there might be other avenues that workers who experience discrimination can pursue. Union employees can try to settle grievances through arbitration. Those who are fired or put on probation can go straight to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Otherwise, she said, there would be no legal recourse for workers like an Internal Revenue Service employee Kaplan was able to secure a settlement for last spring after he was denied a promotion by a manager who witnesses testified referred to the man as "a flaming queer." The manager was suspended and lost her title for a year, Kaplan said.

Bloch removed the press release announcing that settlement from the office's Web site, sources said.

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