Don Zarda. Photo Credit: Facebook

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a time fraught with LGBTQ civil liberties being challenged and reduced by the conservative Trump administration, a victory was obtained in late February when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, sexual orientation discrimination is discrimination “because of… sex.” The ruling in Zarda v. Altitude Express reverses existing precedent in the Second Circuit barring lesbian and gay people from bringing employment discrimination claims under Title VII when they are targeted at work for their sexual orientation, LGBT Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) stated.

Don Zarda, a skydiving instructor who was fired from his job in Long Island, N.Y. because he was gay, died in a skydiving accident.

“Don was so upset about being fired just for his sexual orientation. To right a wrong would have meant the world to him” sister Melissa Zarda said. She and her brother’s former partner Bill were the plaintiffs in the case, Freedom for All Americans said. They were represented by attorney Gregory Antollino. The organization filed an amicus brief, recruiting more than 50 businesses representing 350,000 employees who signed on.

The two organizations in partnership with WilmerHale filed an amicus brief supporting the late plaintiff Zarda, a New York man who brought a Title VII sex discrimination claim against his employer after he was fired for being gay. On the opposing side, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed an amicus brief arguing that Title VII does not protect individuals from sexual orientation discrimination.

The ruling follows a similar ruling last year in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, as well the position held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that lesbian, gay and bisexual workers are protected from sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, the organizations added.

Employees in six states — Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, Connecticut and Vermont, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands — now have the assurance of clear federal protections against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

Statements by the organizations, along with others stated:

“[The] ruling from the Second Circuit, along with positive developments in other states and federal circuits, brings hope that existing civil rights laws can help to address the job discrimination plaguing so many LGBT people across the country,” said GLAD Civil Rights Project Director Mary L. Bonauto.

“[The] ruling recognizes that sexual orientation discrimination always involves discrimination based on sex, and trying to draw an artificial line between the two leads to unfair and inconsistent treatment of workers’ claims,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon P. Minter.

“Under Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Justice Department has been wielded as a weapon of injustice, arguing that employers should be able to fire people simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But despite the Trump administration’s best efforts, the LGBTQ community and their allies have prevailed in federal court. This is a major victory for anyone who believes in the promise of full equality for all Americans, and a massive blow to Republican leaders and lawmakers standing in the way of progress. Democrats are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community, and we will always fight to end discrimination in all its forms,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez shared.

“No one should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation — and I am pleased that the Second Circuit has sent a clear statement in support of equal justice…. As we argued in our amicus brief, Title VII is meant to protect all Americans from discrimination based on their sex; and, today, the Second Circuit agreed, making clear that this protection extends to discrimination that targets people based on the gender of their relationship partners. No employer should be able to penalize its employees because of who they love. In its decision today, the Second Circuit underscores that federal law, like New York State law, affirms that fundamental right,” New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman remarked.


Lainey Millen

Lainey Millen was formerly QNotes' associate editor, special assignments writer, N.C. and U.S./World News Notes columnist and production director from 2001-2019 when she retired.