In a step that creates a new protected class, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal under federal law.
The ruling is significant since it essentially sets the stage for employers being susceptible to a new class of lawsuits, opening up an additional area of liability.
While discrimination based on sexual orientation is not spelled out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it does bar sexual discrimination and the commission ruled that “an allegation of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination.”’
Employers will have to change their policies and handbooks and train supervisors and managers on the ruling.
Federal courts are not bound to the ruling, but that said, courts frequently defer to federal agencies when they interpret laws that come under their jurisdiction.
The ruling applies to a number of employment areas, including hiring, termination and promotion decisions, and employee working conditions, including claims of workplace harassment.
It would apply to both job applicants and employees, who would be able to file a complaint with the EEOC if they feel their rights have been violated in this regard.
The EEOC justified its interpretation of sexual discrimination to include sexual orientation by writing:
“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes or norms. ‘Sexual orientation’ as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.”
Here’s an example of what the EEOC means: When a manager mistreats a gay male employee because he dislikes the fact that his employee dates other men, the manager is taking that worker’s sex into account. Such discrimination is obviously sex-based, and therefore forbidden by Title VII.
The ruling is essentially a roadmap for courts to use when hearing cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. And the issue is especially salient in light of the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that laws barring gay and lesbian marriages are illegal.
Twenty-two states currently ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And under the new guidelines, all sexual orientation discrimination will be considered illegal, empowering gay private employees to lodge discrimination complaints.
Courts may choose to accept or reject the EEOC’s ruling, but the commission’s rulings are respected by the judiciary, and could tip more courts to rule that sexual orientation discrimination is, indeed, already forbidden in the United States.