The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission ruled this week that job discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal under already existing federal civil rights law, effectively banning employment discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual workers across the country.
The EEOC made its landmark decision on Wednesday in a 3-2 vote, according to The Washington Post, deciding that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination based on sex, also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“We conclude that sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration,’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII,” the EEOC wrote in its decision, which was issued in response to the complaint of a Florida air traffic controller who alleged he was passed over for a promotion because he is gay.
While EEOC decisions are not binding in federal courts, they guide judges' legal interpretations.
Rights groups lauded the EEOC’s ruling.
“The fight for basic civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people just took a big step forward,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT project director, James Esseks, said in a release. “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people all across the country now have a place to turn if an employer fires them because of their sexual orientation. This is a significant development because protections for gay and transgender people are almost nonexistent in federal law, and 28 states also lack state-level protections.”
The EEOC issued a ruling in 2012 that discrimination of gender identity is protected under federal civil rights laws banning sex discrimination, meaning that employers are banned from discriminating against their transgender employees based on their gender expression.
But some 29 U.S. states lack laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 32 states don’t have laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination at work, according to the LGBT rights group Human Rights Campaign. Attempts at passing a federal non-discrimination act that would protect all workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity have stalled in Congress.
And anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodation — meaning businesses or medical service providers can refuse service to LGBT clients — is legal in all but 17 states, according to the think tank Movement Advancement Project, which researches issues related to LGBT civil rights.