COLUMBUS - Gov. Ted Strickland fulfilled a campaign pledge today by signing an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification when it comes to employment in all state agencies over which he has control, including public universities.
The move restores protections against sexual-orientation discrimination that were enacted by the last Democrat in the governor's residence, Richard Celeste, in the 1980s.
The order continued through Republican Gov. George Voinovich's administration in the 1990s. But it was not renewed by Republican Gov. Bob Taft when he took office in 1999.
The issue of "gender identification," however, is new.
Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said this could apply to transsexuals and cases in which someone makes presumptions that someone else doesn't act in a way expected of his gender.
"He decided this order is necessary to ensure state employees are judged on their work performance and are not discriminated against based on any perception of difference," Mr. Dailey said. "This is the result of a long internal process over the last several months as we determined the fairest way to apply the prohibition against discrimination based on any bias or prejudice."
A variety of gay and civil rights organizations and businesses applauded the governor's action during a signing ceremony this morning at the Statehouse.
"I want Ohio to be a place where all citizens are valued and included and allowed to fully participate without fear or concern that they may be the subject of discrimination based on who they are," Mr. Strickland said. "I think this is a positive step in the right direction toward saying to all people of Ohio and America that Ohio is a place that is welcoming to them and that we seek their talents and skills as we join together to move Ohio forward."
Jeff Gamso, of Toledo, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, praised the move.
"It is important that Ohio enter the mainstream of our society and recognize that discrimination against any of our citizens is wrong," he said. "This is a step in that direction, but it doesn't address it all. We need legislation that is beyond the governor's capability to ensure nondiscrimination throughout the private and public sectors. Ohio should be welcoming to all people and businesses."
Existing law prohibits discrimination in employment when it comes to race, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, age, and ancestry. Mr. Strickland's order would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identification" to that list at least as it applies to state offices, agencies, boards, and commissions under the executive branch.
Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) said state law already makes it illegal to "discriminate against people."
"Here, the governor feels the need to cater to the far left, the homosexuals, and other definitions that he'll put in his executive order. It's pandering of the highest form," Mr. Wachtmann said.
Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta) also questioned the need for such an order.
"In general terms, we all have a duty to make sure discrimination doesn't happen in the workplace, but I never like creating special categories of victims," he said. "Laws ought to apply generally and we should not pick out special classes who merit enhanced protections. I'm not sure there's a compelling need to do this."
He said some courts have interpreted "sex" under current federal law to include sexual orientation. He also questioned how the governor plans to define "gender identification."
Karen Tabor, spokesman for House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), said the speaker would withhold comment until he sees the order Mr. Strickland will sign today.
When the executive order initiated by Mr. Celeste expired at the close of the Voinovich administration, Mr. Taft did not issue a similar order. Instead, his order generally declared that it was the policy of his administration to "prohibit discriminatory employment practices and to ensure that all Ohio citizens have an equal employment opportunity."
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