A class-action suit against retail giant Wal-Mart could set a precedent that would lead to new workplace protections for LGBTQ Americans, BloombergBusiness reports.
Jackie Cote leads an estimated 1,200 other former and current employees who have had their same-sex spouses’ insurance coverage denied, which was company policy until 2014.
Because Wal-Mart would not ensure Cote’s wife, even though the couple was legally married in Massachusetts, the couple racked up $150,000 in uncovered bills to treat her wife’s ovarian cancer.
True, gay spouses now have a universal right to marry, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which ensures such workplace protections as spousal benefits under the banners of things like race, gender and religion — doesn’t cover sexual orientation.
But Cote’s lawyers are arguing that discrimination based on sexual orientation is discrimination based on gender.
“The sex of her spouse is the reason for treating people differently–isn’t that discrimination based on sex?” asked attorney Gary Busek, who’s working on the case for Cote.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission would seem to agree. The federal agency doesn’t write or enforce laws, but in recent years, it’s argued that sexual orientation and gender identity are included as types of gender discrimination under Title VII. That’s a point of view that could set precedent for many other existing laws.
Wal-Mart may jeopardize its LGBTQ-friendly image if it challenges the suit.
The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index gives it a 90 percent favorability rating. And the retailer just came out against a bill in its headquarter state of Arkansas that opponents say would allow discrimination against LGBT people.
Though like the suit will be settled out of court, there’s a chance it could go all the way to the Supreme Court–and create etched-in-stone protections for LGBTQ workers.