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Sexual orientation no longer protected by the Dept. of Interior?

On Behalf of | Feb 7, 2020 | Employee Discrimination

As an American, you expect the government and courts to uphold your civil rights. As a federal employee, you may be subjected to the quiet erosion of those rights. Especially if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community.

The latest erosion to make the news was the removal of “sexual orientation” as a protected class from the Interior Department’s anti-discrimination guidelines. The deletion was first reported by the Huffington Post, and it has some LGBTQ advocates deeply concerned.

What changed?

In 2017, the Interior Department updated its ethics guide. And someone demanded an edit to its “fundamental principles of ethical behavior.” One provision reminds employees that they need to obey all equal-opportunity laws and regulations. According to the new language, they must act “regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, or handicap.”

This was a notable change from the same provision as it was written in 2009. That statement offered its protections “regardless of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.”

Part of a larger pattern

As NBC News reported, LGBTQ advocates see the change as more than a minor edit. They see it as part of the current administration’s larger attack on their civil rights. By the time NBC reported on the Interior Department’s language shift, the advocacy group GLAAD had tracked 133 “attacks” on the LGBTQ community.

For example, the Justice Department officially changed its interpretation of the Civil Rights Act to focus on “sex” as strictly a matter of “male” or “female.” Officials claim this was what lawmakers meant in 1964. The same day the Justice Department adopted that stance, the president banned transgender people from serving in the military. Meanwhile, the GSA and Department of Health and Human Services have also edited their materials much like the Interior Department.

Protected or not?

An Interior Department spokeswoman responded to the Huffington Post, claiming that the edit didn’t really matter. She said the Interior Department complies with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and its limits on discrimination. These protect:

  • Gender
  • Gender identity
  • Transgender status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy

However, as NBC noted, the spokeswoman’s comments highlight the stakes in a case headed to the Supreme Court. That case names the EEOC as a defendant as it challenges the standing interpretation of the Civil Rights Act’s protections for “sex.”

Where does this leave you?

The winds may be shifting, but—for now—federal employees can still demand equal protection on the broader definition of “sex” held by the EEOC. Still, the recent changes may suggest larger changes in the future. Federal employees facing such discrimination may want to get advice on their case sooner rather than later.


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