Federal Appeals Court Allows Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim in the Workplace

Earlier this week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in an 8-3 majority, that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects employees from workplace discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This decision comes weeks after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way, stating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not bar sexual orientation discrimination. Although a major win for gay rights activists, this will likely end up as a highly contested case in the Supreme Court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of a person’s sex. This part of the Act has traditionally excluded sexual orientation discrimination from sex discrimination. Only twenty states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the issue has not been brought up to the Supreme Court yet.

Kimberly Hively alleged that Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana denied her a full-time job due to the fact that she’s a lesbian who is non-conformative with traditional gender roles. She claims that after witnessing her kiss her then-girlfriend in the parking lot, she was denied any sort of full-time position. Hively then filed a complaint against the school arguing that her denial of employment was a violation of Title VII.

Hively’s original claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was thrown out in the district court, stating it was not a violation of the law. She then appealed to a 3 judge panel at the 7th Circuit, which backed up the decision of the trial court. That same appellate court subsequently agreed to hear the case with all the judges present.

In the majority opinion, Chief Judge Diane Wood stated that the case was covered by the law because it resembles claims women brought up about rejection into traditionally male workplaces. She stated that the employers in these traditionally male workplaces policed boundaries on what kinds of jobs were acceptable for a woman to have. The court also stated that gender stereotyping is unlawful, and because Hively doesn’t conform to tradition gender roles, she was a victim of stereotyping. The ruling has the potential to change the national landscape of equal rights in the workplace and is a step in the right direction.

The reinterpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to contain sexual orientation discrimination is seen as controversial by some legal minds across the country. It is, nonetheless, very promising that employee rights are being expanded to LGBT+ individuals across this country, as discrimination based on sexual orientation is completely unjust. The proceedings of this case at the Supreme Court will have to be watched to see if workplace rights continue to be preserved for all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientations.  

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