by Marc Kovac

Capital Bureau Chief

Columbus -- Gov. Ted Strickland signed an executive order May 17 prohibiting discrimination of state employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"I want Ohio to be a place where all citizens are valued and included and allowed fully to participate without fear or concern that they may be the subject of discrimination based on who they are," Strickland said. "This is a positive step in the right direction." More than 20 supporters, including openly gay cabinet member Mary Jo Hudson (state director of insurance), stood behind Strickland as he signed the order.

It covers applicants or employees of any cabinet agency or state board or commission and bans discrimination in decisions related to hirings, layoffs, terminations, transfers, promotions, demotions, compensation rates and eligibility for in-service training.

Strickland said the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has documented ongoing and past discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender issues.

"I have heard as recently as this morning, through my staff, that there are state employees who have indicated that they have felt across the years, although there may not have been a specific incident that they could point to, that they have felt ... somehow in a lesser protective position," he said.

Strickland's order is the first of its kind instituted by a governor in more than two decades. Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste instituted a similar executive order, and Republican Gov. George Voinovich left the policy in place. But the executive order was not renewed by Republican Gov. Bob Taft.

Celeste's order covered discrimination based on sexual orientation. It did not include references to gender identification.

"I think those who are dealing with gender identity issues should not be subjected to discrimination," Strickland said. "I think our understanding of these issues probably are more fully understood now than perhaps they were at the time Gov. Celeste initiated (his executive order)." Strickland also said he would be sympathetic toward laws prohibiting discrimination among private employers. A number of employers (Nationwide Insurance, The Limited, AEP, Ohio State University and the Cleveland Clinic) have adopted "progressive" businesses policies against such discrimination, he said.

Marc Kovac is the Dix Newspapers Capital Bureau chief. E-mail him at mkovac@dixcom.com.