Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sexual orientation is not a proxy for religious discrimination

Until Congress gets its act together and passes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it is still legal to openly discriminate against employees because of their sexual orientation. For example, in Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Inc. (6th Cir. 8/31/09) [PDF], the employer admitted that it fired the plaintiff because of her sexual orientation. The 6th Circuit found that because sexual orientation is not a protected class, Pedreira did not have a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.

Employees, though, have found loopholes in the discrimination laws to successfully bring sex discrimination claims based on non-conformity to gender stereotypes. For example, in Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc. (3rd Cir. 8/28/09) [PDF], the 3rd Circuit allowed a effeminate gay man to bring a sex harassment claim based on allegations that his co-workers called him names such as Princess and faggot.

In Pedreira and Prowel, both employees also claimed religious discrimination, asserting that their lifestyle did not comport with their employers’ conservative religious views:

  • Pedreira claimed that living openly as a lesbian did not comply with her employer’s religion, and that she was terminated because she did not hold its religious belief that homosexuality is sinful.
  • Prowel claimed that his co-workers harassed him because his homosexuality did not match their religious views.

The Courts disagreed. Sexual orientation discrimination is not illegal, and employees cannot use religion as a proxy for sexual orientation. Religious discrimination both precludes employers from discriminating against an employee because of the employee’s religion, and because the employee fails to comply with the employer’s religion. The discrimination, however, must be targeted at a specific religion. The plaintiffs did not allege that their religion had anything to do with their terminations, or that their sexual orientation was tied to their religious beliefs. They merely claimed that their employers’ religious beliefs frowned on their lifestyles.

It is likely that sexual orientation discrimination will be outlawed in Ohio or nationwide by 2010 at the latest. Until then, this issue is one of morals for business owners. As for me, I think it’s reprehensible that this type of misconduct still occurs in what we advertise as the cradle of freedom.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or