U.S. attorney general orders probe into mistreatment of gay employees

Tone contrasts that of predecessor Jeff Sessions

U.S. attorney general orders probe into mistreatment of gay employees
U.S. Attorney General William Barr delivers remarks in Washington, on Feb. 26. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. Attorney General William Barr said he was ordering certain Justice Department offices to investigate possible discrimination targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees after an internal gay affinity group complained of low morale.

In an April 4 letter to DOJ Pride released on Friday, Barr said he was "troubled" by the group's concerns, and was directing the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to "investigate and address allegations of discrimination."

Barr also released a formal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement declaring that no department employee or applicant should face discrimination over race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

"Issuing the statement is not only required by law ... it is the right thing to do," Barr wrote.

Barr's tone and response to the department's gay rights group marked a stark contrast from his predecessor Jeff Sessions, who actively took steps to undermine civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

In October 2017, for instance, Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors declaring that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not protect workers from gender identity discrimination.

The department under Sessions' leadership also reversed legal positions taken during the Obama administration on gay rights, including one case where it appeared before a federal appeals court in Manhattan to argue that Title VII does not provide protections to gay and lesbian workers.

In a March letter to Barr, DOJ Pride said the department in recent years has suffered low morale, hurting its ability to retain and recruit new LGBT talent.

The group said Sessions had declined ever to issue an EEO statement reiterating the federal government's stance against discrimination, despite requests to do so.

Throughout his time at the department, it said, an older EEO statement issued by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was all that remained up on the department's website.

Based on an October 2018 survey, the group found, gay, lesbian and transgender employees felt the workplace environment was "no longer the welcoming, inclusive environment" it used to be.

Of all the respondents in the survey, only 31 per cent said they believed the Justice Department valued LGBT employees.

In particular, the survey identified concerns inside both the FBI and BOP — the two largest components of the Justice Department. It also uncovered repeated criticism within the FBI Academy, the agency's law enforcement training and research center, over how gay people are evaluated and treated.

An FBI representative said in a statement that the agency "is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in our workforce" and it does "not tolerate discriminatory behaviors."

The BOP, in an emailed statement, said it "does not tolerate discrimination" and any allegations of misconduct are taken seriously.

"We are committed to ensuring a safe workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment," the statement said. 

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