The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has decided this week that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal by existing laws.
The landmark ruling could now extend to new rights for LGBT Americans.
The decision was rooted in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination “based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin.”
Before now, courts have generally held that sexual orientation is not protected by this clause because the term is not explicitly listed and interpreting it as such was not the intention of the legislators behind the law.
But in its 3-2 vote ruling, the commission reasons that any employment decision based on someone’s sexual orientation must also inherently take into account his or her gender, pushing the question under the umbrella of the law’s language.
The decision reads
For example, assume that an employer suspends a female employee for displaying a photo of her female spouse on her desk, but does not suspend a male employee for displaying a photo of his female spouse.
‘Sexual orientation’ as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.”
The case in question was a complaint filed against transportation secretary Anthony Foxx in which a Florida air traffic controller alleges he was passed over for a job because he is gay.
The ruling is not definitive until it is solidified by legislation or a Supreme Court decision, but it does carry significant weight in courts across the country.
The decision claimed that earlier circuit court rulings on the matter have been grounded in “dated” precedents without any additional analysis. More recent legal precedents in the same courts, the commission goes on, have recognised that
gender stereotyping — which includes anti-gay remarks — is considered sex discrimination.
As Time points out, this is the same logic that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts used when considering same-sex marriage earlier this year before ultimately opposing it.
Justice John Roberts said in April,
If Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can’t. And the difference is based upon their different sex. Why isn’t that a straightforward question of sexual discrimination?”
In 2012, the commission ruled in a similar case that the same law protected gender identity when a transgender woman claimed she was denied a job at the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because of her transition.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffen praised the decision but called on legislators to bolster it and other LGBT civil rights issues by setting them into law.
Griffen said in a statement
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,”