Attorney General Bill Barr responded on Thursday to a group of LGBT employees at the Justice Department who complained they endure increasing discrimination under the Trump administration, leading to declining morale and an exodus of staff.
Barr replied in a letter that he was “troubled by the concerns [the group] raised,” which included allegations that gay FBI agents at the academy were pushed out and LGBT employees at the Bureau of Prisons faced hostility.
Barr told the group in a letter that he directed the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI “to take appropriate action to investigate and address allegations of discrimination and to prevent it going forward.”
DOJ Pride, which said it represents thousands of employees at the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, also urged Barr in its letter last week to issue an Equal Employment Opportunity statement that asserts the Justice Department will create a “workplace free of discriminatory harassment.” The agency hadn’t issued a statement like that since the Obama administration.
Barr corrected that Thursday, signing the statement that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics.
“Issuing the statement is not only required by law — as you noted in your letter — it is the right thing to do,” he said. “Employment decisions at the Department must be made solely on merit and free from discrimination. Every employee should know that I stand by that principle.”
In its letter last week, DOJ Pride cited its internal survey of LGBT workers who reported finding it “demoralizing” that officials had failed to issue an EEO statement. The survey also found just under one-third of LGBT DOJ workers believe the agency “values its LGBTQ employees,” and only 43% believe it “does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”
Workers cited in the letter alleged the FBI Academy discriminates against gays and Latinos and evaluates them more harshly, and that “many gay agents attending [the FBI Academy] are dismissed because they are not ‘bro-y’ or masculine enough.”
Under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department has taken a wide array of anti-LGBT positions, guided by former attorney general Jeff Sessions and former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker. Among them, it has said transgender women in prison must be jailed in cells with men, argued that religious shopkeepers can refuse service to same-sex couples, and defended a ban on transgender troops in the military.
The Justice Department filed a brief in federal appeals courts in 2017 and 2018 arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation — contradicting numerous federal court rulings in recent years. During Barr’s confirmation hearing, he said anti-gay discrimination should be illegal under the law, but he said current law does, in fact, allow anti-LGBT discrimination against workers.
In his nondiscrimination statement, Barr said that “no applicant for employment or employee of our Department will be denied equal opportunity because of race, color, religious, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation, disability (physical or mental), gender identity, protected genetic information, pregnancy, status as a parent, marital status, political affiliation, or any other nonmerit-based factor.”
Two executive orders issued by former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ban discrimination against federal workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, Sessions issued guidance memos in October 2017 that critics feared would give people of faith — including government workers and contractors — a loophole to ignore those policies.
“I know that these are not a cure-all,” Barr said in his letter to DOJ Pride on Thursday, adding that he hoped “DOJ Pride will continue to help me and Department leadership in ensuring the Department is an inclusive and productive workplace for all employees.”