On May 4, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. Could this order allow discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and women, as feared? Will this impact the workplace? No. Here is the line to remember: Existing laws cannot be overturned by Executive Orders.
Let’s take a look at this Order as a good example. The portion of the Order that pertains to Federal law is:
_Sec_. _4_. _Religious Liberty Guidance_. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions can issue guidance until the cows come home: The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does not answer to him. The EEOC is an independent federal agency charged with enforcing federal laws against illegal discrimination in the workplace. Laws like the ADA, ADEA, FLSA, FMLA and Title VII are under the purview of the EEOC for enforcement and guidance. Congress may make changes to the laws and the courts can overrule, clarify or uphold the laws.
Executive Orders might be good optics but cannot impact the rule of federal. state or local law in the workplace.
“..[I]t is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex…” wrote Chief Circuit Judge Diane P. Wood of the 7th Circuit Appeals Court, wiping away prior ambiguity surrounding Title VII protections based on sexual orientation. The 8-3 decision, held in a rare en banc hearing, arose out of Indiana professor Kimberly Hively’s lawsuit against her former employer Ivy Tech Community College. Hively claimed her denial of promotions, tenure and her eventual termination were because she is a lesbian.
The 7th Circuit completely bypassed the issue of Congressional intent of the word “sex” in Title VII. Judge Posner opined that the court was not the “obedient servants of the 88th Congress (1963-1965)” and the court was “[T]aking advantage of what the last half century has taught.”
This case matters beyond Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. This decision reflects what many state and local government have already done to protect LGBT workers, and similar cases will be heard in other circuits. Most importantly, it is a best practice to implement policies, procedures and training that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace.
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