On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage decision, the EEOC has issued a decision of its own that could help extend workplace protections for the LGBT community. On July, 15, 2015, the EEOC ruled that existing civil rights laws bar workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The complaint was filed by a federal air traffic control employee against the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, alleging that the complainant was denied a job opportunity because of his sexual orientation. After the Department dismissed the complaint, the complainant appealed the decision to the EEOC, which reversed the Department’s decision.
As the EEOC pointed out, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not explicitly provide protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the relevant question, according to the EEOC, is “whether the agency has ‘relied on sex-based considerations’ or ‘take[n] gender into account’ when taking the challenged employment action.” The EEOC concluded that “sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration,’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII.”
The EEOC provided several reasons to support this conclusion. The Commission stated that individuals who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation are subjected to treatment that would not have occurred but for that individual’s sex. In addition, the Commission noted that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination because the alleged discrimination is based on differential treatment for associating with a person of the same sex. Finally, the Commission pointed out that sexual orientation discrimination is “premised on the fundamental sex stereotype, norm or expectation that individuals should be attracted only to those of the opposite sex.”
While the EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII applies directly to claims brought by federal employees, the Commission’s interpretation of the issue sheds light on the EEOC’s position in all cases it investigates and prosecutes, including claims brought against private employers. Although the decision is not binding on courts, courts typically give great deference to the EEOC’s decisions, thus opening the door to future lawsuits. Considering the changing national landscape with respect to the rights of homosexual individuals to marry, the decision appears to be a natural step in the increasing protections of the LGBT community.
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