The topic of LGBT rights has dramatically increased in the last few years. Most have heard about the recent Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation. Whether on the legislative floor or in the courthouse, there is no question that LGBT rights have really come a long way in America in the last few years. But what about in the workplace? What employment law protections are there against LGBT discrimination at work?
What many people do not know is that workplace protections for LGBT employees vary by state jurisdiction. This can be confusing as many people may assume that the law is uniform throughout the nation. It’s not. Simply put, federal and state laws may differ as to whether an employer may discriminate against an employee because of his or her sexual orientation.
Federal Law Does Not Ban Sexual Orientation Discrimination
Federal law is not very good at protecting LGBT employees in the workplace. The main federal anti-discrimination law is Title VII. It doesn’t ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Some federal courts have held that discrimination by an employer based on an employee’s sexual orientation is not a violation of federal law. See Hamner v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Ctr., Inc. (7th Cir. 2000) and Bibby v. Philadelphia Coca Cola Bottling Co. (3rd Cir. 2001) (“It is clear…that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.”) What is really interesting is that Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee based upon their “sex,” but some courts have interpreted that to refer only to their biological gender, not someone’s sexual orientation or identity.
However, just because an LGBT employee is not be protected at the federal level does not mean they are out of luck. Most states have some sort of protection banning discrimination in the workplace based on an employee’s sexual orientation. For example, California explicitly bans employment discrimination based on “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “gender expression.” See CA Government Code § 12940. Case law supports this as well.
State Law is Better for LGBT Employment Rights (Depending on Where You Live)
Complicating the matter, there are still a few states (eighteen in total) that have no state laws whatsoever prohibiting LGBT discrimination in the workplace. To make it even more confusing, some states prohibit discrimination in all workplaces (public and private) but some states, such as Alaska and Arizona, only prohibit public employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation.
The good news is that there is an increasing amount of states joining the movement of implementing laws that are very favorable to LGBT employees. From 2012 until present, three states have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. I’m an lawyer in California which has had laws protecting LGBT employees in the workplace since the early 1990s. So why is the federal government not on board with most of these states yet?
Answering that question is pretty difficult as there are so many factors to be considered as to why the federal government has not followed the majority of the states yet. But what can be said is this; in today’s legislative environment, the federal government usually does not implement controversial or hotly debated law until an overwhelming majority of the states have already done so. Rather than anger many states by forcing them to adopt a law they dislike, the federal government will sit on the sidelines until enough political pressure has built up that Congressional leaders and the Supreme Court align with the states. For example, the Supreme Court did not legalize same sex marriage until thirty-seven states had already done so and public opinion swung towards legalization. So if that is the case then when is the federal government going to implement favorable laws protecting LGBT employees in the workplace?
The Momentum is Growing for Federal Protection
As stated above, most states offer some level of protection to LGBT employees, but some states provide a higher level or protection than others. So arguably, there is not yet an overwhelming majority of states that offer LGBT employees total protection like that of the laws in California. But every year a state or two adopts favorable LGBT employment laws. Thus, assuming a state or two adopts favorable laws every year we may see some major changes to federal law within the next decade protecting LGBT employees.
Moreover, aside from statutory changes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken a stance on the issue. In 2015, the EEOC released a statement that federal law prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee based on his or her sexual orientation because it is a type of sex discrimination. Considering that the EEOC is the federal administrative body that handles employment claims, this is a huge step in the right direction. However, such statements made by the EEOC are not binding on the federal courts or the legislature, but they can influence a court or the legislature to take a certain stance.
At the end of the day, LGBT rights in the workplace have come a long way from what they used to be only a few decades ago. In the span of only a couple decades, most states have adopted some sort of law protecting LGBT employees, and almost half of the states have total protection for LGBT employees. Things are looking good for the LGBT community when it comes to protection in the workplace, but there is still some work to be done. In light of Obergefell v. Hodges and the most recent stance taken by the EEOC, I would not be surprised if in the next decade or so, whether it be by the legislature or a Supreme Court ruling, that the federal government amend Title VII to offer more protection to LGBT employees in the workplace.
Branigan Robertson is an employment attorney in Orange County, California. He is a member of the California Bar, California Employment Lawyers Association, and the National Employment Lawyers Association. He exclusively represents employees (the little guy/gal!) in lawsuits against employers and focuses his practice on discrimination and wrongful termination. Mr. Robertson attended Chapman University School of Law and was President of the Employment Law Society.