For the first time, a federal court has extended civil rights protections to LGBT employees under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In an 8-3 decision, the full US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” also covers discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The case revolved around the meaning of the word “sex” in Title VII, which the court found to be inseparable from “sexual orientation.”
“It is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the majority. “It would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’”
To reach their decision, the majority examined decisions made by the Supreme Court over the past 20 years involving employment discrimination and gay rights.
“In this case, we have been asked to take a fresh look at our position in light of developments at the Supreme Court extending over two decades. We have done so, and we conclude today that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination,” Wood wrote.
The ruling comes from a lawsuit filed by Kimberly Hively, who accused her employer, Ivy Tech Community College, of firing her based on her sexual orientation.
Hively said that the time had come “to stop punishing people for being gay, being lesbian, being transgender,” in an interview with the Associated Press.
In 2015, Lambda Legal, the LGBT civil rights legal organization that represented Hively, filed an appeal after the Seventh Circuit dismissed her case on the basis that civil rights laws do not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“This decision is gamechanger for lesbian and gay employees facing discrimination in the workplace and sends a clear message to employers: it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Greg Nevins, Employment Fairness Program Director for Lambda Legal said, according to a press release from the law firm.
Judge Diane Sykes wrote the dissent for the court, calling the decision “momentous,” while warning about the implications of the court’s overreach.
Sykes says that the ruling is not “faithful” to the text of Title VII, and the law needs to be changed by Congress, rather than the courts.
“If Kimberly Hively was denied a job because of her sexual orientation, she was treated unjustly. But Title VII does not provide a remedy for this kind of discrimination. The argument that it should must be addressed to Congress,” Sykes wrote.
The decision on Tuesday comes only three weeks after a conflicting decision from the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Atlanta, who ruled that Title VII “was not intended to cover discrimination against homosexuals.”
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