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Recent decision affects State Department's ability to discriminate

Employment law is complicated and nuanced. Although anti-discrimination laws protect the vast majority of American workers in a variety of scenarios, notable exceptions exist. For example, some federal laws only protect workers employed at companies of a certain size. Additionally, some applicants with criminal records may be discriminated against during the hiring process, provided that their record directly relates to the job at hand.

However, the federal government generally protects individuals from employment discrimination in most situations. For this reason, it is surprising to discover that the government has sought to exempt itself from certain discrimination laws. In a recent ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down that attempt.

The State Department, which regularly employs U.S. citizens overseas, argued that it should be considered exempt from U.S. discrimination laws in regard to these employees. Its argument rested on the fact that the Basic Authorities Act indicates that contracting with U.S. citizens overseas may occur notwithstanding certain U.S. laws. This exemption was interpreted as incentive to hire U.S. citizens abroad.

However, the D.C. Circuit Court disagrees. In its ruling, it noted that "Even if the State Department were correct in reading this ambiguous passage as relating to State Department hiring, it is unclear how allowing the United States to discriminate against its own citizens on the basis of their age - or disability, race, religion, or sex - would promote the hiring of U.S. workers abroad."

The situations in which employers - including the federal government - may discriminate against applicants or employees due to protected classifications are exceedingly rare. Thankfully, the law is clear enough in this regard that even the lawmakers who create it are prohibited from exempting themselves.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Court: State Dept. Employee Is Covered by Discrimination Law," Joe Palazzollo, Aug. 7, 2012

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