Maryland residents may be surprised to discover that discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation has generally been considered permissible by the courts. While Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination based on gender, there are no explicit protections for individuals who face discrimination based on their sexual orientation. However, a United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling from July could challenge the way the 1964 law has generally been interpreted.
The EEOC ruling states that discrimination against workers based on their sexual orientation is rooted in a stereotyped view of sex roles that is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. The case involved a Federal Aviation Authority air traffic control specialist who claims that he was denied a promotion due to his sexual orientation.
While the EEOC ruling may be in line with changing societal views, the agency does not have the power to change federal laws. However, EEOC rulings are binding on federal agencies and are taken seriously by the courts. Gay rights activists have called for a new law extending protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the EEOC ruling indicates that current legislation provides this protection. The EEOC ruling contradicts prior decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, but some observers believe that the nation's highest court will be called upon to revisit the issue if courts around the country begin to adopt the position taken by the agency.
This ruling indicates that the interpretation of laws prohibiting workplace discrimination may evolve over time. Attorneys with experience in this area will likely stay abreast of rulings made by the courts and EEOC, and they could use this knowledge to encourage employers who believe that they are on solid legal ground to settle discrimination claims.