Federal Courts Move Toward Ban Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination

A U.S. Federal Court this week lent more weight to the notion that a federal law that bans employment discrimination applies to employers whose conduct is motivated by their employees’ sexual orientation. By a decisive 8-3 margin, the full court for the 7th Circuit applied Supreme Court precedent on sexual stereotyping to conclude that a gay professor enjoys the protections of Title VII, which proscribes certain forms of employment discrimination as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Though the ruling does not apply outside the 7th Circuit, it is significant for several reasons. First, it reverses precedent from the same circuit to the effect that sexual orientation is not a protected category under Title VII. Second, the majority reportedly consists of several Republican Party appointees, indicating broad agreement that gays are protected against discrimination under federal law just as they are by the U.S. Constitution. Third, the decision is at odds with other circuit courts, a situation that could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question. The Court frequently does so when circuits courts are split on significant issues such as the breadth of Title VII. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII, agrees that sexual orientation discrimination is banned under that law.

What the federal courts ultimately decide on sexual orientation discrimination may not be as significant in Massachusetts as in other states. Here, state law already provides protections for gay workers, who can bring claims of job discrimination to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and state courts.