(CN) — The U.S. government faces a federal complaint to expose records on its "purge" of gay and lesbian federal employees, under a 1953 order by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Ike had been new in office when, "with the stroke of his pen, [he] provided J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation with the legal authority to purge gay and lesbian employees from the federal employment rolls," according to the complaint filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes from a nonprofit dedicated to the archival research of gay and lesbian political history, the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.
When Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 to purge homosexuals from federal employment rolls, he did so in the name of national security, the society says.
It would be 61 years before another executive order, this one signed by President Barack Obama, made it explicitly illegal to discriminate against federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Mattachine Society seeks to uncover documents related to the implementation of Eisenhower's order, noting that the government terminated 7,000 to 10,000 federal employees in the 1950s alone "based on suspicions of homosexuality."
In addition to records on Eisenhower's order, the society also wants information on the FBI's "Sex Deviate Program," which collected information on federal employees suspected of homosexuality.
It submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for these records in 2013, but says the government's response "has been one of delay and obfuscation."
"The DOJ and FBI have produced only 552 pages of documents and withheld 583 pages of documents," the society says.
Much of this withheld correspondence is believed to involve Warren Burger, then a senior Justice Department official tasked with helping enforce the order. He later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"As an initial matter, the volume of material that the DOJ and FBI have found does not survive any level of scrutiny," the complaint states. "It defies logic to believe that only 1,135 pages concerning EO 10450 were created by the government under a program that lasted 40 years and resulted in terminating the Federal employment of thousands of LGBT Americans.
"In addition, the DOJ and FBI's claims of privilege are indefensible. Simply as one example, the proposition that some of the requested documents are being withheld on the basis of national security — documents presumably created decades ago — makes no sense. More shocking is the fact that the FBI historically used the same ground of 'national security' to withhold documents that it used to purge our nation's employment rolls of LGBT Americans over sixty years ago."
The Mattachine Society says that, after 60 years, the government should come clean about its discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans.
It seeks a court order requiring the Justice Department and FBI to conduct a thorough review, and produce all documents responsive to its request.
The society is represented by in-house counsel Joshua Rogaczewski, and Lisa Linsky with McDermott Will & Emery in New York.
Paul Thompson, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, told the Associated Press: "This is an issue of public importance - how your government treats people who work for it, how your government has historically targeted people based on their LGBT status and destroyed their lives. People are paying attention to this right now."
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While the D.C.-based Mattachine Society was formed in 2011, the group represents a new incarnation of one of the oldest gay rights organizations in the United States. The original Mattachine Society was founded in 1955 and disbanded in 1987.
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