The Civil Rights Act – drafted more than 60 years ago – is a pivotal piece of legislation that protects workers from discrimination based on any factors relating to “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” While this law has served as a launch pad for developing a set of employer responsibilities that are anti-discriminatory, the terms stated within the law are nonetheless open to interpretation.
One significant question is whether discrimination based on “sex” encompasses “sexual orientation.” Is a gay man legally protected from discrimination in the workplace?
This question – originally raised by a New York skydiving instructor – has been debated across the courts for several years. In 2010, Donald Zarda was preparing for a tandem skydive with his female student. Prior to the jump, he informed her that he was homosexual, in order to ease her apparent apprehension about being strapped closely to a male instructor. He was subsequently fired, and he sued for unlawful discrimination.
A matter of ongoing debate
Since that time, the case has been heard by multiple courts. Two courts in New York ruled against him. He appealed. In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) weighed in on the issue, finding that sexual orientation is inherently linked to one’s sex and is therefore protected under the Civil Rights Act. In 2017, the Department of Justice took an interest in the case, making an opposite ruling to the EEOC.
The final word
In 2020, the Supreme Court concluded, in a 6–3 ruling, that the protections laid out in the Civil Rights Act should, in fact, include sexual orientation. The court noted that sex and sexual orientation are intrinsically linked, so discrimination based on sexual orientation involves discrimination based on sex by default.
Advocates of LGBTQ rights have praised the decision. Sadly, the decision came too late for Donald Zarda. He passed away before the case made it to the Supreme Court.