The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal by a Georgia security guard who said she was harassed and forced from her job because she is a lesbian, avoiding an opportunity to decide whether a federal law that bans gender-based bias also outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The justices left in place a lower court ruling against Jameka Evans, who had argued that workplace sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Workplace protections are a major source of concern for advocates of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The case hinged on an argument that is currently being litigated in different parts of the United States and has divided lower courts: whether Title VII, which bans employment discrimination based on sex, also outlaws bias based on sexual orientation. Title VII also bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin.
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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent federal agency that enforces Title VII, had argued since 2012, during Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration, that bias against gay workers violates the law.
But in July, Republican President Donald Trump's administration argued the opposite in a separate case. That case, involving a skydiving instructor who said he lost his job after telling a customer he was gay, is currently pending before a New York federal appeals court.
Evans in 2015 sued Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah, a psychiatric facility, and several of its officials.
She alleged that while she worked there from 2012 to 2013, her supervisor tried to force her to quit because she wore a male uniform and did not conform to female gender stereotypes. She said the supervisor asked questions about her relationships, promoted a junior employee above her, and physically slammed a door into her body.
In March, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the hospital, saying that only the Supreme Court can declare that Title VII's protections cover gay workers.
Represented by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an LGBTQ legal advocacy group, Evans appealed to the Supreme Court. Her lawyers cited language in the high court's landmark 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide that discriminating against gay people diminishes their personhood.
"By declining to hear this case, the Supreme Court is delaying the inevitable and leaving a split in the circuits that will cause confusion across the country,” said Greg Nevins, Employment Fairness Project Director for Lambda Legal. “But this was not a 'no' but a 'not yet,' and rest assured that Lambda Legal will continue the fight, circuit by circuit as necessary, to establish that the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination."
Evans case was backed by nearly 80 companies, including Microsoft and Apple, as well as 17 states and the District of Columbia.