Obama order less far reaching than pending bill on sexual orientation.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley praised President Obama for aiming against discrimination based on sexual orientation, although Obama's proposed executive order would not go as far as federal and state legislation Merkley has championed.

The Oregon Democrat spoke Monday after a White House official confirmed that Obama has asked for preparation of such an order, which would apply to federal contractors and the federal government workforce.

"It's a huge step in the fight for equality," Merkley said in a conference call with reporters.

"Today the arc of history bent a substantial amount toward justice," Merkley added in referring to a quote made popular by Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader. "Discrimination has no place in the workplace."

Obama's executive order would apply to an estimated 20 percent of U.S. workers.

It is less far reaching than a bill Merkley led debate for and the Senate passed last year to outlaw discrimination in all employment based on sexual orientation. The bill passed 64-32, but remains in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner has kept it from a vote.

Merkley was one of the lead sponsors of a letter in March urging Obama to sign an executive order after it became apparent the bill was going nowhere in the House. The bill was signed by 200 members of Congress, including 52 senators.

It is also less far reaching than a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2007, when Merkley was House speaker. Oregon's law extends nondiscrimination to public accommodations and housing.

Though the state law was considered controversial at the time, Merkley said, "no one has come to a town hall (in six years in the Senate) and said it was a huge mistake to take a stride toward ending discrimination."

A federal nondiscrimination bill has been pending in Congress for two decades, since Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced one in 1994. The Senate rejected it by one vote in 1996. Kennedy let Merkley take charge of the cause just before his death in 2009.

Merkley said many people are unaware that it is legal in 32 states to fire someone based on gender identity, and in 29 states, sexual orientation.

In contrast, marriages by same-sex couples are allowed in 19 states — including Oregon as of May 19 — and Washington, D.C. Judges' rulings to that effect in eight other states have been stayed pending appeals.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled directly on same-sex marriages, the justices a year ago struck down a 1996 ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples.

"Many thought we would end employment discrimination long before full marriage equality," Merkley said. "Many people are surprised, like my daughter was, to find that discrimination is still legal in so many states."

The political effects of Obama's pending order are "going to be different in every state," Merkley said.

It's unlikely to cost Merkley politically in his bid for a second six-year term. Monica Wehby, the Portland physician and political newcomer who is the Republican nominee against Merkley, has taken no stand on the legislation.

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