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Obama to sign orders protecting gay and transgender workers without new religious exemption

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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama plans to sign executive orders Monday prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender workers in the U.S. government and its contracting agencies, without a new exemption that was requested by some religious organizations.

Obama's action comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case that allowed some religiously oriented businesses to opt out of the federal health care law's requirement that contraception coverage be provided to workers at no extra charge. Senior administration officials said Friday that ruling has no impact on non-discrimination policies in federal hiring and contracting.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.

Since Obama announced last month that he would sign the orders, he's faced pressure from opposing flanks over the religious exemption and given no indication of where he would come down. Many religious leaders and conservative groups wanted him to exempt religious organizations from the order, while liberal clergy and gay advocacy groups adamantly opposed such an exemption.

Until last month, Obama long resisted pressure to pursue an executive order for federal contractors in hopes that Congress would take more sweeping action banning anti-gay workplace discrimination nationwide. A bill to accomplish that goal — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — passed the Senate last year with some Republican support, but has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled House.

The senior officials said Obama's action planned for Monday at the White House would amend two executive orders. The first, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, prohibits federal contractors from discriminating based on race, religion, gender or nationality in hiring. Obama plans to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protections, and order the Labor Department to carry out the order. The officials said that means the change will probably take effect by early next year.

President George W. Bush had amended Johnson's order in 2002 to allow religious groups to hire and fire based upon religious identity. Churches also are able to hire ministers as they see fit. The senior administration officials said Obama will not change those exemptions.

The second order Obama will amend was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1969 to prevent discrimination against federal workers based on race, religion, gender, nationality, age or disability. President Bill Clinton added sexual orientation, and Obama will include gender identity in a change to immediately take effect.

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said: "With two strokes of a pen, the President will have a very real and immediate impact on the lives of millions of LGBT people across the country."

The administration officials said the change for federal contracting will impact some 24,000 companies with 28 million workers, or one-fifth of the U.S. workforce. Many large federal contractors already have employment policies barring anti-gay workplace discrimination, as do 21 states. However, the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates that the executive order would extend protections to about 14 million workers whose employers or states currently do not have such nondiscrimination policies.

While few religious organizations are among the biggest federal contractors, they do provide some valued services, including overseas relief and development programs and re-entry programs for inmates leaving federal prisons.

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Follow Nedra Pickler at http://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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