CHICAGO—Gay rights advocates Wednesday hailed a first-of-its-kind federal appeals court ruling that employers cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.
The ruling Tuesday by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago expanded the 1967 Civil Rights Act's protections against gender discrimination to include LGBT employees in the workplace.
It conflicts with an Atlanta appellate court decision three weeks ago, which concluded that gay and lesbian workers are not protected by anti-discrimination laws.
The dueling decisions could eventually be decided by the US Supreme Court, where there is currently a vacancy and an even split among justices nominated by Republican and Democratic presidents.
The US Senate is embroiled in a contentious battle over the confirmation of President Donald Trump's conservative nominee to the high court, Neil Gorsuch.
The case at the center of the landmark decision involved a community college teacher, Kimberly Hively, who sued her former employer, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. She claimed she was denied promotions and eventually fired because she is a lesbian.
In an 8-3 decision by both Republican and Democratic judicial appointees, the court concluded that while Congress had not originally intended to include sexual orientation in the Civil Rights Act, its prohibition against gender discrimination extended to LGBT people.
Judge Richard Posner, an appointee of former president Ronald Reagan, a Republican, said expansion of anti-discrimination protections was warranted because society now considers sexual orientation an innate part of a person, just as gender is.
"The position of a woman discriminated against on account of being a lesbian is thus analogous to a woman's being discriminated against on account of being a woman. That woman didn't choose to be a woman; the lesbian didn't choose to be a lesbian," Posner wrote.
Gay rights groups hailed the Chicago appellate court's decision.
"Today's ruling is a monumental victory for fairness in the workplace" said Sarah Warbelow of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Calling the ruling a "game changer," Greg Nevins of Lambda Legal said it "sends a clear message to employers: it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Diane Sykes said judges should not reinterpret a law's meaning.
"Our role is to give effect to the enacted text, interpreting the statutory language as a reasonable person would have understood it at the time of enactment," wrote Sykes, who was on Trump's list of potential Supreme Court nominees.
Neil Gorsuch, the person Trump did nominate for the high court, is considered an originalist--deferring to the original text of a law as legislators had intended. If he is confirmed, he could hold sway over the issue in a conservative tilting Supreme Court.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2017.