Last month the White House removed information from government Web sites about sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. That’s because federal employees can now be fired for being homosexual. On Feb. 23 Washington Post columnist Steven Barr reported that references to sexual orientation discrimination were removed from Federal employment complaint forms posted on agency Web sites. At the time, President Bush’s new appointee to head the Office of Special Counsel, Scott Bloch, said the policy was under review.
Last week, Bloch issued his brief on the matter. According to Bloch, federal employees will now “have no recourse if they are fired or demoted simply for being gay.”
In 1980, the federal government ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which covers all conduct that does not “adversely affect” work performance. Bloch, however, believes that conduct based on sexual orientation is not the same as sexual orientation itself. In his twisted reading of the 1978 act — an act intended to protect employees and job applicants from prejudice in the workplace unrelated to their job performance — Bloch draws a distinction between an individual’s conduct as a gay or lesbian, and his or her status as a gay or lesbian. As he told the Federal Times last week, “People confuse conduct and sexual orientation as the same thing, and I don’t think they are.” So while you can’t be fired for bringing your same-sex partner to the office picnic, you can be fired for being gay.
A little unclear? That’s because it is. Bloch’s distinction between conduct and status may make sense on a very theoretical level. But how exactly Bloch believes his warped theory will play out in practice is hazy. If an employee files a complaint that he was fired because of his sexual orientation — excuse me, sexual conduct — how does Bloch expect his indistinct distinction to be proven in a courtroom? It’s entirely possible for a federal agency to claim that their basis for an employee’s dismissal was not his conduct, but simply the employee’s status as homosexual. As the terms become rather interchangeable in practice, how does Bloch intend to ensure that every sexual discrimination case that goes before the OSC is not dismissed? Or perhaps creating that loophole is his very intention.
And if status alone is the Bush Administration’s concern, the new ruling is tantamount to a sign on every federal building that reads, “Homosexuals need not apply.” And the most frightening part of all is that discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace is no longer federally protected.
The legal possibilities aside, Bloch’s ruling contradicts both his and President Bush’s promise to protect the rights of homosexuals. During Bloch’s confirmation process before the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee, he expressed his commitment to protecting federal employees from unlawful discrimination related to their sexual orientation. Now, four senators from the committee have expressed in a letter to Bloch their concern with the inconsistency between his statements and his actions.
Yet Bloch’s unilateral action should not only prompt us to consider his dishonesty and the depth, or lack thereof, of his legal sense. That references to sexual orientation have been removed from federal discrimination complaint forms and Web sites begs the question of why the current administration is bent on degrading the rights of an entire class of society. Bloch stated before Congress that he was committed to equal protection. Yet, then, without legal precedent and without even hearing a sexual discrimination case brought before him, he, in essence, reversed a federal law that had been in practice for over 20 years. He claims that he did not consult with the White House because of the heated debate on gay marriage. Yet, the irony is that just as President Bush was proposing an amendment that would write discrimination into the constitution by denying gays and lesbians marriage rights, Bloch took an action that bars the same individuals from the right to work without fear of discrimination.
The Bush Administration can take credit for many of our country’s setbacks. Environmental protection and civil liberties, to name a few. Now we can add gay rights to the list.
Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.