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Legal Expert Weighs In On Sexual Orientation Discrimination Case

An Indiana University law professor says the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a case challenging whether federal workplace discrimination laws cover sexual orientation will have wide-reaching implications.

The court ruled in favor of Kimberly Hively, who filed a lawsuit claiming Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana didn’t hire her full-time because she’s a lesbian.

The 7th circuit’s decision comes after a panel of judges in Atlanta ruled the opposite in a different case. IU Maurer School of Law Professor Deborah Widiss says the issue is likely to land at the Supreme Court.

"There’s something wrong when you have a fundamental right to get married, but then you can get fired because of the person that you married and because they’re the same sex as you."

"Typically the court likes to let the appellate-level courts grapple with a issue," Widiss says. "But once a split develops, you do often see the court weighing in."

Widiss says the case highlights the complicated question of how the interpretation of old laws can – or should – change over time. Many of the arguments in the Hively case center around the meaning of the word “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I think most judges, and certainly the 7th circuit judges, all of them agreed at that moment Congress probably didn’t anticipate that it would be interpreted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," Widiss says.

She says the ruling could also signal growing acceptance of the LGBT community. While the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision that made same sex marriage legal doesn’t have a direct impact on the sex discrimination law, it is relevant.

"There’s something wrong when you have a fundamental right to get married, but then you can get fired because of the person that you married and because they’re the same sex as you," Widiss says.

The dissenting opinion in the 7th Circuit’s ruling alludes to the judicial philosophy of President Trump’s high-court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who advocates adhering largely to original legislative texts in deciding legal disputes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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