Civil Rights Act Protects Gay Workers, Appeals Court Rules

In a case that could have wide-ranging national significance for gay rights, a federal appeals court in New York ruled on Monday that a landmark civil rights law bars employers from discriminating against their workers based on sexual orientation.

The decision was a setback for the Justice Department, which under President Trump had unexpectedly interceded in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a sky-diving instructor. The department had argued that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not explicitly cover sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace, a stance that put it at odds with another federal body, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In rejecting the Justice Department’s argument, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit became the second appeals court to rule recently that the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws bias in the workplace on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” should also be extended to include sexual orientation. A third appellate court in Atlanta has ruled differently.

While gay rights groups hailed the decision on Monday, the ruling could create a scenario in which the issue of gay rights at work will be decided by a Supreme Court that already bears Mr. Trump’s imprint, with his nomination of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

The 10-3 ruling by the Second Circuit stemmed from Altitude Express’s dismissal of a Long Island sky-diving instructor, Donald Zarda, in 2010. As Mr. Zarda was preparing that year for a tandem sky-dive with a female student, he told her that he was “100 percent gay.” Her boyfriend later complained to the school about the comment.

Mr. Zarda said he had made the remark to soothe the woman, who seemed uncomfortable with being so tightly strapped to him during the dive. Mr. Zarda filed a lawsuit, eventually claiming that his firing violated Title VII. Two courts in New York, including a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit, initially ruled against him.

In 2014, Mr. Zarda died in a sky-diving accident. His appeal, however, continued, and the legal landscape started changing. The E.E.O.C., under President Barack Obama, issued a ruling in a separate matter, finding for the first time that “sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration’” and should be protected by the law.

In July, the Trump administration decided to weigh in on the Zarda case. On the same day that Mr. Trump suggested on Twitter that transgender people would be barred from serving in the military, Justice Department lawyers filed a friend of the court brief in Mr. Zarda’s case, arguing that Title VII protections did not extend to sexual orientation.

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