Using Religion to Justify Illegal Workplace Discrimination More Likely After EEOC Title VII Decision

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on sex, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

From Buzzfeed:

“The commission found that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination for several reasons. Among the reasons, the commission stated, is because sexual orientation discrimination ‘necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex’ and ‘because it is associational discrimination on the basis of sex.’”

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This decision will likely be significant in future employment discrimination cases and may spawn even more attempts to use religion as a justification for discrimination.

“Although the courts will have the last word on the scope of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination, EEOC interpretations of Title VII generally receive deference from federal courts…,” says Gregory Lipper, Americans United’s Senior Litigation Counsel. "So if, say, a gay man brings a Title VII claim against his employer, and argues that he was fired because he is gay, in violation of Title VII’s protection against sex discrimination, he can now point to the EEOC’s decision to support his claim.”

All of these factors come into play in cases of LGBT individuals, religion and discrimination in the workplace.

After the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, closely held for-profit corporations can assert defenses under Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It is possible that certain companies will invoke RFRA and argue that their owners’ religious beliefs entitle them to deny jobs on the basis of sexual orientation. We don’t think they have a good argument, because the government has a compelling interest in preventing employment discrimination. But in light of this new EEOC ruling, we’ll likely see more and more attempts to use religion to justify otherwise illegal discrimination.

Overall, this EEOC decision is another landmark in a summer that has seen LGBT Americans make significant gains in equality. Still, it would be a mistake to think that this ruling  is a panacea to workplace discrimination woes.  We have many battles ahead of us as oppose those who would discriminate in the name of religion.