(June 20, 2016.) A Florida federal judge ruled in favor of our clients today, holding that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by the same major federal law that bars discrimination based on race, age, gender, disability and other historically-protected characteristics. The lengthy, detailed ruling is one of the first federal-court rulings in the country to make such a finding. This is a relatively new extension of Title VII, the main anti-discrimination law governing American workplaces. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first issued a nonbinding opinion in favor of extending protection based on sexual orientation in July 2015. Click here for my July 2015 article on the EEOC ruling.
United States District Judge Mark E. Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama, reasoned that discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is simply another form of gender discrimination. Judge Walker’s ruling can be read in full here. But here’s the final passage summarizing his view:
Simply put, to treat someone differently based on her attraction to women is necessarily to treat that person differently because of her failure to conform to gender or sex stereotypes, which is, in turn, necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex. No one doubts that discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation was not “the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.” See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 79–80 (1998) (holding that Title VII extended to “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace”). To hold that Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination “because of sex” includes a prohibition on discrimination based on an employee’s homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality does not require judicial activism or tortured statutory construction. It requires close attention to the text of Title VII, common sense, and an understanding that “[i]n forbidding employers to discriminate against individuals because of their sex, Congress intended to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women resulting from sex stereotypes.”
Judge Walker’s order is ground-breaking on many levels and will most certainly be cited by other courts around the country as the law continues to develop on this critical issue.