For The First Time, A Texas Court Decides State Law Protects LGBTQ Employees
A Texas court has ruled that state law prohibiting discrimination at work also applies to LGBTQ people.
On March 10, Texas's Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas became the first in the state to rule that the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
This became possible after last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bostock v. Clayton County, which declared that LGBTQ people should have the same workplace protections under federal law as people who are discriminated against for their sex.
“Homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex,” the court wrote in its majority opinion, adding that “to discriminate on these grounds requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex.”
The Texas state court applied the same reasoning to the TCHRA as part of a lawsuit against Tarrant County College, first filed in 2019.
In the suit, a former Tarrant County College employee named Amanda Sims alleged she was discriminated against and fired after she told her colleagues she was a lesbian.
Sims’ attorney, Jason Smith, originally filed the case as a whistleblower claim. The TCHRA did not protect people for their sexual orientation or gender identity, and Bostock hadn’t been decided yet, he said.
“There were no cases holding that that same logic applied to state law,” Smith said.
That changed with Amanda Sims' case, which gave Texas's Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas the opportunity to reconcile state law to the Bostock decision. It decided that her lawsuit could be made under the TCHRA.
Smith said no other state court has ruled on the issue before.
“This case is precedent for other Texas courts to follow, and it really sends a message to all of the human resources departments and all the employers throughout Texas that they need to take steps to prohibit and eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians,” he said.
Before this ruling, Texas was one of 27 states with no statewide employment non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people. That’s according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Jason Starr is the HRC’s litigation director. He said in a February interview that even after the Bostock decision, LGBTQ protections should be made explicit in state law.
“It provides a lot of direction to employers for what their obligations are, and that’s really what’s most important,” Starr said. “It’s to make sure we’re doing things to prevent people from experiencing discriminatory harassment in the workplace.”
Plus, he said, filling in patchwork protections helps LGBTQ employees who face discrimination.
“It’s really beneficial to have clarity on the front end, to have consistency with the federal protections, and for Texans be able to go to their local workforce commission and to their local court and really resolve these issues in Texas,” Starr said.
Democratic lawmakers in the Texas state legislature are promoting bills to enshrine LGBTQ rights in state law, according to the Texas Tribune — including employment protections, a ban on so-called “conversion therapy” and a blanket prohibition on discrimination.
As for the lawsuit against Tarrant County College that sparked the appeals court decision, it is ongoing.
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