Court Rules That Civil Rights Act Protects Gay Workers
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UPDATED: May 26, 2017
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The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay workers from job discrimination.
The case was brought by Kimberly Hively, an openly-lesbian college professor. Hively began teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College’s South Bend campus in 2000. She applied for at least six full-time positions between 2009 and 2014. Eventually, even her part-time teaching contract wasn’t renewed.
Hively filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), stating that she believed Ivy Tech had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.
After the EEOC issues a right-to-sue letter, she brought suit in federal district court.
Ivy Tech moved to dismiss the case, arguing that sexual orientation is not a protected class under the Civil Rights Act. The district court granted this motion and Hively appealed.
The Civil Rights Act states that it is illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of a person’s sex, but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted that the issue before it was
what it means to discriminate on the basis of sex, and in particular, whether actions taken on the basis of sexual orientation are a subset of actions taken on the basis of sex.
Judge Wood noted:
Hively’s claim is no different from the claims brought by women who were rejected for jobs in traditionally male work- places, such as fire departments, construction, and policing. The employers in those cases were policing the boundaries of what jobs or behaviors they found acceptable for a woman (or in some cases, for a man).
The court concluded:
that a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.
A Significant Victory for Gay Rights
The New York Times called the decision “a significant victory for gay rights” and noted that the Seventh Circuit was the highest federal court to grant such employment protections.
The decision does not mean that Hively won her case, but only that she can now proceed to trial.
Hively represented herself in the early stages of the case, because no lawyer thought she would win.
“I wasn’t doing it just for me, but for anyone who was going to be bullied in a job for who they decided to love,” she said in an interview quoted by the Times.
Other Circuit Courts are also dealing with the same issue. For example, on May 25 the Second Circuit (which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont) agreed to rehear an appeal by a gay skydiving instructor who alleged he was fired after a customer complained about his sexual orientation.
An appellate court in Georgia previously concluded that Title VII does not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The split between the circuits suggests that the issue will eventually need to be resolved by the US Supreme Court.