Yesterday, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling holding that Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The case involved a lesbian part-time employee, who alleged she was deprived of the opportunity for full-time employment and was not promoted due to her sexual orientation. After losing her case at the District Court level, the employee appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
The Seventh Circuit noted its hands were tied in the matter:
Since Hamner and Spearman, our circuit has, without exception, relied on those precedents to hold that the Title VII prohibition on discrimination based on ‘sex’ extends only to discrimination based on a person’s gender, and not that aimed at a person’s sexual orientation.
In affirming the decision, the court also pointed to the fact that Congress had not amended the law to include sexual orientation and the fact that the Supreme Court has not established precedent extending Title VII protections to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation.
While Title VII does not expressly include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic in its ban against employment discrimination, your faithful blog authors have discussed a number of legal theories under which LGBT employees have sought relief. We have discussed the sex stereotyping theory, i.e., the idea that an employee’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes or norms may be actionable for LGBT plaintiffs under Title VII. We have also discussed what might be called the “referential” theory, under which the EEOC has argued that sexual orientation cannot be understood as a distinct concept from sex, and that sexual orientation discrimination is therefore sex discrimination by definition.
Absent congressional action or Supreme Court guidance, employers continue to face some uncertainty as to the viability of these kinds of claims — which some courts may find persuasive. In light of this uncertainty, employers should consider doing three things:
- Remember that even if not covered by Title VII, sexual orientation may be a protected characteristic in employment under state, county, local law, or executive order — depending on the jurisdiction(s) where a business operates
- Proactively develop policies and procedures to prevent sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, even in jurisdictions where it is not a protected characteristic
- Continue to monitor these legal developments and discuss them with legal counsel