The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled Thursday that existing federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The federal government and 28 states lack laws that ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Thursday’s ruling gives legal weight to such claims.
However, it doesn’t address discrimination in housing or public accommodations, nor does it guarantee workplace discrimination claims will succeed in the courts, renewing calls for federal legislation that’s been stuck in Congress for years.
The EEOC ruled in 2012 that workplace discrimination based on gender identity is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With Thursday’s ruling, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans now have at least some legal protection against workplace bias.
“Discrimination has no place in America, plain and simple,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. “This historic ruling by the EEOC makes clear they agree workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, much like gender identity, is illegal.”
The EEOC case was brought by an unnamed employee in the air traffic control tower at Miami International Airport who claimed he was denied a promotion because he’s gay.
In a 17-page ruling, the EEOC said such discrimination is unlawful under Title VII, which prohibits sex bias.
The airport worker who filed the claim said a supervisor had made disparaging comments about him for talking about his partner, repeatedly calling him “a distraction in the radar room.” At one point, the supervisor said, “We don’t need to hear about all that gay stuff.”
The worker claimed that his sexual orientation factored into his supervisor’s decision to promote two of his colleagues but not him.
In its ruling, the EEOC concluded that sexual orientation is a sex-based consideration.
“Sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex,” it wrote.
The ruling partly accomplishes what gay rights groups have sought for years to achieve in Congress, where the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act has languished for more than two decades. In November 2013, the Senate approved the law with 64 votes, including 10 Republicans.
James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT project, called the EEOC ruling “a monumental step forward” that would provide protection to millions of Americans.
But Esseks added that courts couldn’t be expected to interpret the ruling consistently and that a comprehensive federal law was still needed.
“Employers as well as employees deserve the clarity that comes with express federal and state protections that everyone understands,” Esseks said.
The EEOC decision redacted the name of the airport employee who filed the claim, but it did name the defendants: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal agencies bar discrimination against LGBT workers.
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the agency is reviewing the decision.