In a potentially groundbreaking decision that increases legal protections throughout the U.S. for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled on June 15, 2015, that existing civil rights law bars sexual orientation-based employment discrimination. The EEOC addressed the question of whether the ban on sex discrimination in Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“The Civil Rights Act”) bars anti-LGB discrimination in a charge brought by a Florida employee.

The ruling was issued without objection from any members of the five-person commission, and while it technically only applies directly to federal employees’ claims, the EEOC also applies such rulings across the nation when it investigates claims of discrimination in private employment. Although only the Supreme Court can issue a final, definitive ruling on the interpretation of The Civil Rights Act, EEOC decisions are given significant deference by federal courts.

Although the EEOC had been moving in this general direction with cases and field guidance addressing specific types of discrimination faced by gay people, the July 15 decision unequivocally states that sexual orientation is inherently an unlawful “sex-based consideration,” reasoning that sexual orientation discrimination “necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex” and constitutes “associational discrimination on the basis of sex.” In making this ruling, the EEOC joins approximately 22 states that provide sexual orientation discrimination protections in employment.

Given that this EEOC decision is entitled to deference by federal courts, employers across the U.S. should anticipate that practices that could be construed as discriminatory on the basis of a worker’s sexual orientation will be challenged in federal court and subject the employer to potential liability.

For EEOC guidance on this issue, click the following link: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/enforcement_protections_lgbt_workers.cfm