Appeals Court Upholds Title VII Protection for LGBT Employees

By George Khoury, Esq. on April 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an important ruling regarding a hotly contested issue: federal discrimination protections for LGBT employees. While many states already provide legal protections for LGBT employees who suffer discrimination based upon their sexual orientation, it is not a settled issue whether Title VII provides any protection.

The Seventh Circuit's ruling found that the protections for sex discrimination listed in Title VII do protect LGBT employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. While other courts have agreed with this interpretation of Title VII, several have not despite the fact that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has considered LGBT individuals to be protected since 2015.

How Is Sex Discrimination the Same as Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

The court essentially found that sexual orientation discrimination is the same as sex discrimination. The court explained that when an employment decision is made based on an employee's sexual orientation, that the employer is basing the decision on a discriminatory or stereotyped notion of the employee's sex, or gender. The court specifically stated that:

Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant -- woman or man -- dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex.

The court further explained that:

No matter which category is involved, the essence of the claim is that the plaintiff would not be suffering the adverse action had his or her sex, race, color, national origin, or religion been different.

Is This Headed to the Supreme Court?

While the EEOC has settled on the correct interpretation of Title VII including sexual orientation discrimination, the Supreme Court has not weighed in directly on this specific issue. Typically, controversial issues involving civil rights will be appealed to the top, but the Supreme Court only hears a small number of cases each year. If the High Court finds that the logic of the appeals court is satisfactory, they may choose to decline hearing the matter entirely.

However, the appeals court did cite recent, and not so recent, Supreme Court precedent to support their reasoning. Particularly the fact that SCOTUS has ruled that gender stereotyping, same-sex sexual harassment, associational discrimination, all violate federal protections, the appeals court extended that same logic.

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