After a period of foreshadowing and rumor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now gone ahead and ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden under existing federal civil rights law, specifically the current ban on sex discrimination. Congress may have declined to pass the long-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but no matter; the commission can reach the same result on its own just by reinterpreting current law.
It’s not the commission that gets to have the final say on that, however; it’s the federal courts. And there is a fair trail of precedent, including circuit court authority, rejecting the proposition that sex discrimination in this setting can be stretched to cover sexual orientation discrimination. Against that, it will be argued that some recent case law has nonetheless drifted toward the idea; more important, judges will be asked to defer to the EEOC in its (new) expert opinion.
But it’s not easy to think of an agency to whose views federal courts nowadays give less deference than the EEOC. As I’ve noted in a series of posts, judges appointed by Presidents of both political parties have lately made a habit of smacking down the commission’s positions, often in cases where it has tried to get away with a stretchy interpretation of existing law. See, for example, the Fourth Circuit's rebuke of "pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis" in EEOC expert testimony, Justice Stephen Breyer's scathing majority opinion in Young v. U.P.S. on the shortcomings of the EEOC's legal stance (in a case the plaintiff won), or these stinging defeats dealt out to the commission in three other cases.
My earlier thoughts on the ENDA merits are here.