The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether existing civil rights laws ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a question that has divided the nation's lower courts.
Federal law forbids workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It does not explicitly apply to LGBT individuals, but gay rights advocates have argued that firing employees because of their sexual orientation is already prohibited as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. They've been hoping to achieve in the courts what they have so far been unable to get in Congress — a nationwide ban on job discrimination.
The cases accepted Monday to reflect the split among federal courts. Two appeals courts ruled that employers violated Title VII by firing gay and transgender employees. A third said civil rights laws don't cover sexual orientation.
For decades, every federal appeals court to consider whether gay employees are entitled to nondiscrimination protection ruled that they are not. But advocates of LGBT rights argued that support for that position has been eroding. In 1989, the Supreme Court said Title VII bans discrimination based on an employee's failure to act according to sex-based expectations, ruling for a woman denied a promotion who was told to walk, talk and dress femininely, wear makeup and jewelry, and have her hair styled.