Discriminating against an employee (or a potential employee) based on certain characteristics like sex, religion, age or nationality is against state and federal laws.
However, this issue can get much more complicated than people think, as discrimination is not always easy to identify. Further, discrimination laws vary between states and in some cases, between state and federal government. For instance, in the state of New York, it is illegal to discriminate against workers based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. This is not a protection at the federal level, though that could possibly change.
Over the years, state and federal appeals courts across the country have heard cases involving sexual orientation and whether or not it is a class protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act that protects other classes from workplace discrimination.
These courts have come to different conclusions. Last month, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that sexual orientation is not protected by current discrimination laws. However, recently, judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit came to a different conclusion, ruling that sexual orientation discrimination is a type of sex discrimination.
Because there is no consensus among the courts, it is possible that the issue could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Should that happen, they would have the final say on whether LGBT workers are protected from discrimination at the federal level. We will certainly be following any developments.
Even though gay and lesbian employees are protected under New York discrimination laws, there are still issues that can arise. For instance, if you commute or work remotely, you may not be covered under New York laws, but another state's laws, which may be different.
Further, just because there are laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation doesn't mean it can't happen. Workers who feel they have been discriminated against in the workplace for this or any reason can speak with an attorney to learn more about their rights and how to protect them.