The headlines were eye-grabbing.
"Civil Rights Act covers LGBT workplace bias."
"Civil Rights Act Protects Gay Workers, Court Rules."
The April 4 ruling by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was called "groundbreaking" and "landmark."
And it is.
But in the perpetual swirl of news and political intrigue, the story of a bipartisan group of judges deciding that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 received, at best, a day's worth of attention.
It deserved more because, at the risk of sounding like too much of a legal expert, the ruling is a very big deal.
So let's revisit that ruling and examine not only what it means for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers in states covered by the 7th Circuit – Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin – but what it may mean to workers nationally in the months and years to come.
The case involved Kimberly Hively, an Indiana teacher who claimed she was denied a full-time job because she is a lesbian. In an 8-3 decision, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Civil Rights Act – which bars discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion or national origin – also protects LGBT employees from workplace discrimination.
Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote: "Viewed through the lens of the gender non-conformity line of cases, Hively represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional): she is not heterosexual ... . Hively's claim is no different from the claims brought by women who were rejected for jobs in traditionally male workplaces, such as fire departments, construction, and policing. The employers in those cases were policing the boundaries of what jobs or behaviors they found acceptable for a woman (or in some cases, for a man)."
The court took into account more recent interpretations of the law by the U.S. Supreme Court "as well as the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex."
You can still be fired for being gay or lesbian in more than half the states in the country. But the 7th Circuit's ruling now becomes a precedent that can be used in cases in other circuits across the country, making it likely that this issue will make its way to the Supreme Court.
"What can happen and what will happen is when other folks have these types of issues, say in the 4th Circuit in North Carolina, it will be used there," said Sidney Minter, a labor employment attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago. "I think eventually the Supreme Court is going to take up the case that has the right facts, and I think eventually the Supreme Court is likely going to include sexual orientation as a protected class under Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act)."
That's why the case was considered such a landmark moment. It's likely to be the domino that drops and knocks all the others down.
Lawmakers in Nebraska who have been fighting to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT people already are using the court's ruling to bolster their argument.
"The 7th Circuit's ruling only legitimizes the fact that people should not be fired because they are LGBT," Democratic Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld told ABC News. "The court provided legitimacy and momentum for our argument."
Polls have shown support for laws that protect LGBT people from workplace discrimination is above 70 percent. In fact, most people in those polls say they thought such laws already existed.
"I think now it's kind of out there in the public realm that the LGBT community is strong and unified and they are making great strides in terms of making sure they have the rights that they deserve," Minter said. "For employers, it just makes sense and is smart to offer those protections for all of your employees regardless of sexual orientation or gender."
He advises companies to not wait around for other courts to follow the 7th Circuit's lead.
"Treat everybody equally," Minter said. "Make sure you have your handbooks up to date, and make sure you have policies in place with respect to harassment and discrimination. Make sure you're actually following those policies. Make sure you have a grievance procedure in place.
"And deal with it. If you hear something where someone is having a problem, you want to address it. If you hear a complaint, you may not think it's legitimate, but you do want to go ahead and investigate it and address it. Just having that process is the biggest thing."
There isn't much we seem able to agree on these days, but I'd like to believe that giving every person a fair shake in the workplace is one where we can find some common ground.
The 7th Circuit's ruling was a step in the direction of making sure all are protected from discrimination. I hope it's a path we all continue down.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.