A federal appeals court ruled late Tuesday that a landmark civil rights law allows gay employees to sue their employers for discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The 8-3 ruling by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago marks an expansion of employee protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act that has long been sought by the LGBTQ community. Title VII of the law makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
But the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is covered by the law’s prohibition against sex discrimination. Other lower courts, including another federal appeals court in March, have held that sexual orientation is not a “protected class” under the law.
The Seventh Circuit, which hears cases from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, ruled in favor of an adjunct community-college professor in South Bend, Ind., who alleged that she was shut out of full-time teaching positions because she is a lesbian.
“Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant—woman or man—dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex,” wrote Judge Diane Wood, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, for the majority. “That means that it falls within Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination, if it affects employment in one of the specified ways.”
A federal trial court dismissed Kimberly Hively’s lawsuit against Ivy Tech Community College in 2015, and a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit rejected her appeal. But the Seventh Circuit accepted Hively’s request for a rehearing last year, with the court’s full complement of active judges participating.