On April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As previously noted, there has been much debate among the courts regarding the meaning of the term “sex” under Title VII and whether discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or transgender status falls within the scope of Title VII’s protection. With yesterday’s 8-3 ruling, the Seventh Circuit became the first appellate court to interpret Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination based on “sex” as barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ruling is consistent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of Title VII and is particularly significant given that the Seventh Circuit is considered among the relatively conservative federal appellate courts. Additional information regarding the decision can be found here.
This decision is only binding on employers in the Seventh Circuit (which encompasses Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Courts in other jurisdictions have reached the opposite conclusion. For example, just a few weeks ago, a panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, another conservative jurisdiction, ruled that Title VII does not protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court may ultimately weigh-in on this issue to resolve the emerging split among the appellate courts.
The Fifth Circuit (which encompasses courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) has not held that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nevertheless, all employers should be aware of this decision. It is likely that attorneys, advocates, and federal agencies will rely on this ruling in an effort to expand the scope of Title VII in other jurisdictions.