Gay rights in America took another step forward this week when the full 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled companies cannot discriminate against LGBT employees.
The ruling broadens the interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex.
Judge Richard Posner wrote: “I don’t see why firing a lesbian because she is in the subset of women who are lesbian should be thought any less a form of sex discrimination than firing a woman because she’s a woman.”
In an ideal world, the Civil Rights Act would be amended by Congress to include sexual orientation. But with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate, that seems unlikely. That leaves it to the courts to decide whether the Civil Rights Act can reasonably be interpreted to include sexual orientation.
Judge Diane Sykes wrote in her dissenting opinion: “We are not authorized to infuse the text with a new or unconventional meaning or to update it to respond to changed social, economic or political conditions.”
But Posner wrote sexual orientation not being mentioned explicitly was not due to a lack of intent to protect LGBT individuals but rather a lack of foresight: “We understand the words of Title VII differently not because we’re smarter than the statute’s framers and ratifiers, but because we live in a different era, a different culture.”
It’s worth noting that this ruling says nothing about whether the employee who brought the case was actually the subject of discrimination; the community college that declined to hire a teacher full time denies the decision had anything to do with her sexual orientation.
But any company that can be shown to have discriminated against an employee because of that employee’s sexual orientation should face legal consequences, and hopefully this ruling moves us closer to that being a reality.
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