In an historic decision, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled on Thursday that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes sex discrimination, meaning it is already prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Their finding mirrors a similar decision from 2012 that discrimination based on gender identity or expression violates Title VII. The EEOC has also previously found that discrimination based on sex stereotypes constitutes sex discrimination.
The finding was based on a complaint filed with the EEOC in August 2012 by a gay male from Miami who believed he was passed over for a permanent position as an air traffic controller because of hostile or disapproving comments his supervisor made regarding his sexual orientation.
In its findings, the EEOC wrote: “Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination means that employers may not ‘rely on sex-based considerations’ or take gender into account when making employment decisions. … This applies in claims brought by lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals under Title VII.
“A sexual orientation claim is the same as any other Title VII case involving allegations of sex discrimination,” they continued., “whether the agency has ‘relied on sex-based considerations’ or ‘take[n] gender into account’ when taking the challenged employment action.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), what those findings mean is that anyone who works for an employer with 15 or more employees can file a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC if they believe they were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
“The fight for basic civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people just took a big step forward,” said James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people all across the country now have a place to turn if an employer fires them because of their sexual orientation. This is a significant development because protections for gay and transgender people are almost nonexistent in federal law, and 28 states also lack state-level protections.”
While the EEOC’s rulings are not binding in federal courts, the finding that LGBT discrimination is prohibited under the interpretation of Title VII could have an impact on future court cases. LGBT advocates are hoping to use the EEOC’s findings as justification to push for explicit protections for LGBT workers. One such way of achieving those protections would be a bill similar to the one proposed by Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), which would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations.
“Discrimination has no place in America, plain and simple,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “This historic ruling by the EEOC makes clear they agree workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, much like gender identity, is illegal. While an important step, it also highlights the need for a comprehensive federal law permanently and clearly banning LGBT discrimination beyond employment to all areas of American life.”
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