From the time Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 until earlier this year, federal courts have consistently held that the Act’s protections against employment discrimination did not apply to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, in March, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana) became the first court to rule the other way, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. What has occurred in federal courts in the wake of that decision, however, has only muddied the waters.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Prior to the Seventh Circuit’s notable decision, courts had only permitted gay employees to make claims of sex discrimination if the employee could show the discrimination occurred because the employee did not conform to gender stereotypes, not simply because of the employee’s sexual orientation. The Seventh Circuit found that the gender stereotype argument is unnecessary, stating “it is . . . impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex.”
The question is far from settled. In April, in a case involving a gay skydiving instructor who claims he was fired because of his sexual orientation, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit ruled that it could not follow the Seventh Circuit’s decision. It held that a three-judge panel could not overturn precedential decisions regarding Title VII’s application to sexual orientation discrimination. Such a ruling would require a review by the entire panel of judges. The Second Circuit has granted such a review (an en bancreview), indicating that perhaps the full panel of judges may be willing to follow the lead of the Seventh Circuit.
The picture becomes fuzzier still because of conflicting input from two government agencies. In preparation for its en banc review, the Second Circuit invited the EEOC to offer an opinion on the matter. The EEOC restated a stance it has held since 2012, saying sexual orientation discrimination is inextricably linked to gender and gender stereotypes and should fall under the protection of Title VII. However, on July 26, 2017, the Department of Justice filed a brief taking the opposite position. The DOJ argued Congress did not intend Title VII to apply to sexual orientation, and that expansion of the protection should be left to Congress, not implemented by the courts. The DOJ also says that the court owes no deference to the EEOC.
Because the federal circuits are now split on the issue, the question may eventually be decided by the United States Supreme Court. The Court has already been asked to review a case in which a former security guard at a Georgia hospital claims she was forced to quit because she was gay. The Court has not yet said whether it will hear the case. Ultimately, as the DOJ suggests, Congress could pass legislation to decide the issue one way or the other.
The takeaway from this flurry of activity is that this is an area of law that is very much in flux. For decades, the position of federal courts in regards to sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII was clear. Now, the landscape has shifted, and the ground is still settling. Employers should be aware that changes are happening quickly in this area and proceed cautiously when a situation potentially involving a sexual orientation discrimination claim arises.