In a 3-2 vote, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids sexual orientation discrimination on the job because it’s a form “sex” discrimination.
While only the U.S. Supreme Court can issue a definitive ruling on the interpretation, federal courts can use the EEOC ruling in future litigations, making it more of a significant ruling than when SCOTUS legalized same-sex marriage, according to Rand Hoch of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
"I'm more excited with the news from the EEOC than I was with last month's Supreme Court decision striking down the marriage bans," Hoch tells New Times.
The EEOC ruling specifically applies to discrimination when hiring, firing, or promotions come up for LGBT employees. It also addresses working conditions and workplace harassment.
“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms,” the 17-page long ruling says. “‘Sexual orientation’ as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.”
Federal courts are not bound by the ruling, but federal courts often defer to a federal agency like the EEOC when they interpret laws that come under their jurisdiction.
Hoch and his group have been working hard at getting municipalities across the state to enact LGBT-inclusive rights. Last week, Delray Beach became the fifth Palm Beach County city to enact an LGBT-inclusive civil rights ordinance ordinance, joining Boynton Beach, Greenacres, Lake Worth, and West Palm Beach.
So although the EEOC ruling is a big deal, Hoch says there's much more work to be done.
"While the EEOC decision is persuasive legal authority for the federal courts, it still is not as strong as a federal law — or for that matter, a statewide law — prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation," he says. "The EEOC is made up of five presidential appointees. Future appointees may not agree with the current EEOC's ruling. So, we really need to continue to enact laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination."
Legislation was proposed in 2007 to add "sexual orientation" into the Florida Civil Rights Act and Florida's Fair Housing Act. But, Hoch says, there hasn't been a legislative hearing of any kind addressing it since 2008. That year, a bipartisan group of legislators led by then-State Sens. Jeff Atwater and Ted Deutch passed the legislation in the Senate Commerce Committee.
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"Unfortunately, the bill did not go further than that committee in 2008 — and has gone nowhere since. I do not foresee our legislative leaders in Tallahassee taking any action in 2016 either," Hoch says.
So far, 57 counties and 394 municipalities across Florida have yet to move forward with prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community. Hoch points out that Wellington and Lake Clarke Shores will be considering similar ordinances next month. And the PBCHRC is working with other municipalities in Palm Beach County as well.
"Until Congress acts, a lot of work must be done," Hoch says. "And we are here to do it."