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Employment rights of Tennessee workers could be expanding if the nation follows the lead of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal appeals court for New York, Connecticut and Vermont recently ruled that employers may no longer discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prevents discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Historically, courts have only interpreted the statute to consider biological gender rather than sexual orientation. The court’s ruling represents a very significant expansion of existing civil rights law and has been met with cheers from equality advocates. Previously, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, also ruled that Title VII provides protection on the basis of sexual orientation, but the U.S. Supreme Court last fall declined to take up the appeal of a woman from Georgia who claimed she had been terminated on the basis of her sexual orientation.

In the most recent case, two federal agencies took opposing views before the court. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued on behalf of the expansion while the Department of Justice advocated for holding the line at historical interpretations. When there is a conflict between circuits, the Supreme Court is typically motivated to clarify matters so that laws can be uniformly interpreted. If the high court ends up following the lead of the 2nd and 7th Circuits, a wave of litigation from victims of orientation-based discrimination could follow.

When an individual is subjected to discrimination or a hostile work environment, there are strict timelines and procedures that must be followed to make a complaint. Consulting with a qualified employment law attorney may provide victims with an overview and strategy for protecting themselves in difficult work situations.