By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal by a Georgia security guard who said she was harassed and forced from her job because she is a lesbian, avoiding an opportunity to decide whether a federal law that bans gender-based bias also outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The justices left in place a lower court ruling against Jameka Evans, who had argued that workplace sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Workplace protections are a major source of concern for advocates of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Gregory Nevins, an attorney at Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group representing Evans, said it was unfortunate the court turned away the case. Lambda Legal had cited language in the Supreme Court's landmark 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide to support their argument.
"The vast majority of Americans believe that LGBT people should be treated equally in the workplace," Nevins said.
The case hinged on an argument currently being litigated in different parts of the United States: whether Title VII, which bans employment discrimination based on sex, also outlaws bias based on sexual orientation. Title VII also bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin.
Lower courts are divided over the issue, making it likely the Supreme Court eventually will hear a similar case. In April, a Chicago-based federal appeals court found that Title VII does forbid job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent federal agency that enforces Title VII, had argued since 2012, during Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration, that bias against gay workers violates that law.
In July, Republican President Donald Trump's administration argued the opposite in a separate case before a New York federal appeals court.
Evans in 2015 sued Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah, a psychiatric facility, and several of its officials.
She alleged that while she worked there from 2012 to 2013, her supervisor tried to force her to quit because she wore a male uniform and did not conform to female gender stereotypes. She said the supervisor asked questions about her relationships, promoted a junior employee above her, and slammed a door into her body.
In March, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the hospital, saying only the Supreme Court can declare that Title VII's protections cover gay workers.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for Georgia's attorney general, whose office represented the defendants, had no immediate comment.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)