The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled on July 15 that existing law protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination based on their sexual orientation. The ruling comes in response to a complaint filed in 2012 by an air traffic control specialist alleging that he was denied employment because he was gay.
Specifically, the EEOC determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the benchmark statute when it comes to handling employment discrimination claims, protects sexual orientation because the very concept is dependent on gender. The EEOC stated that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation “necessarily entails treating an employee less favorable because of the employee’s sex,” calling the practice “associational discrimination on the basis of sex.” Employment discrimination on the basis of sex is outlawed under Title VII.
As has been the case with many of the recent court decisions involving LGBT rights, the EEOC’s ruling was not without conflict, and the final vote of 3-2 suggests that the likelihood of challenges in the courts may be high.
Nevertheless, the decision marks a major step forward in the movement for LGBT civil equality, and it was lauded by organizations working on their behalf. A representative of the National Center for Lesbian Rights saw the decision as further confirmation of a “growing consensus” that sexual orientation should be a protected category—not just in employment, but also in other areas of life such as education and housing. LGBT populations are not currently protected from discrimination in those areas and many others.
Impact of the decision
Although the ruling does not carry the clout that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling would, at least in terms of settling the matter once and for all, EEOC decisions are still taken seriously at the federal level when matters of employment discrimination make their way into the court system.
Similarly, on some level the actual reach of the EEOC’s decision is relatively small, as it applies only to the federal government and the offices of the EEOC itself. Nevertheless, the decision does represent progress toward full civil equality for LGBT Americans, and various activist groups are already planning next steps in the effort to achieve federal protection from employment discrimination. Such an effort could very well lead to the next significant LGBTQ-related case to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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