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Title VII Bans Sexual Orientation Workplace Discrimination

By Jeffrey Yano, Esq. | Last updated on

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation. That's the ruling of the federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York, which has held that such discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It's a major decision that makes a potential Supreme Court decision on the matter more likely.

What Is Title VII?

"Title VII" refers to a portion of the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing equal employment opportunity. The law prohibits employers from discriminating in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin -- what lawyers refer to as "protected classes" of people.

Many workplace discrimination lawsuits rely on Title VII to sue employers for discriminatory hiring, firing, and related employment practices. But back in 1964, protecting LGBT workers from workplace discrimination wasn't high on Congress's agenda.

That was a problem for skydiving instructor Donald Zarda, a gay man, who sued after his former employer allegedly fired him for being a gay man. That wasn't necessarily illegal under federal law.

Sexual Orientation Is Sex

You know it's a major case when the decision contains eight opinions. The controlling, majority opinion, written by Chief Judge Katzmann, held that Title VII "prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as discrimination 'because of ... sex.'" In a nutshell, the court reasoned that sexual orientation discrimination wouldn't exist but for a person's sex.

Possible Implications

The court's decision is big news. LGBT workers in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont are now protected by Zarda. It's also potentially significant because the 2nd Circuit's decision deepens a "circuit split" on the issue. The Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, has reached a similar decision. The Eleventh Circuit, based in Atlanta, recently disagreed, and so do most of the other circuit courts covering the country.

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