Not-So-Equal Opportunity: 10 Discrimination Issues That Made Headlines

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Discrimination casesWe've come a long way since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that Martin Luther King Jr. is credited with helping push through.

Society has continued to diversify, attitudes have (generally) widened and employers have become strong advocates of "equal opportunity" for all employees and job applicants.

Or have they?

AOL Jobs has covered countless workplace discrimination cases, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we highlight some of the most significant and interesting civil rights issues it reported in the last year. From race to appearance, religion to sexuality, these 10 run the gamut.



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Not-So-Equal Opportunity: 10 Discrimination Issues That Made Headlines

Walmart discriminated against female employees in its 451 Texas stores, according to a class action lawsuit filed in October, four months after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a nationwide class action suit against the world's largest retailer. The court had said all of the store's 1.5 million female employees were too diverse to constitute a class. The new lawsuit makes a more modest claim to class status: over 45,000 former and current employees of Walmart.

The lawsuit was filed by Stephanie Odie on behalf of all women similarly affected by what she calls "a pattern or practice of discrimination in management track promotions." The lawsuit charges that these Walmart employees were given no information about how to enter management or the management trainee program required for advancement to upper-level positions. Managers allegedly did not post opportunities, conduct open applications procedures, or specify what the qualifications or requirements were.

Read More: Walmart Hit With Another Gender Discrimination Class-Action Lawsuit

America is like a quilt, he famously said, where many patches -- the white, the Hispanic and the gay, among the rest -- are woven and held together by a common thread. When Jesse Jackson alluded to the quilt metaphor during his address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, he probably didn't expect 27 years later to be taken to court over sexual harassment charges filed against him by one of his gay staffers.

Tommy R. Bennett worked for the activist's political action committee, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, from July 2007 until Dec. 23, 2009. Over that time, Bennett worked as the national director of community affairs, while also subbing in as the de facto national field director and Jackson's travel assistant.

The close work with Jackson exposed Bennett to what he alleges is the reverend's lascivious lifestyle, including his many trysts with his mistresses. But in addition to being forced to help Jackson cover his tracks after his affairs, Bennett also asserts that he was sexually harassed by Jackson. Bennett's first allegation of harassment by Jackson was in 2010, when he filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations. News of that filing was broken by the Windy City Times in April.

Read More: Jesse Jackson's Gay Staffer Not Backing Down On Sexual Harassment Charge

When New York became the latest state to allow same-sex marriage last summer, thousands rejoiced and thousands did not. But a few town clerks were suddenly faced with an inescapable moral and legal dilemma: They were opposed to gay marriage, but their job now required that they authorize them.

This was the predicament facing Rose Marie Belforti in Ledyard, a small town southwest of Auburn. She is the town clerk, one of six elected officials in the local government. She's a religious Christian, and if you call up her dairy farm, the Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery on Black Rock Road, her voice mail tells you "to have a blessed day."

Last month, Belforti sent a letter to the town board, explaining that she would not be signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. She suggested that those jobs be assigned to a deputy. There is no deputy clerk in Ledyand, but it probably didn't seem so urgent. Fewer than 10 couples a year on average come in to be married.

Read More: New York Clerk Refuses To Do Her Job -- Marry Gay Couples

Hertz has fired 26 of its drivers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after the workers opted against clocking out for their Muslim prayer sessions.

The drivers, all of whom are Somali Muslims, saw the company's decision as a failure to appreciate the customs of the Islamic faith.

"We feel like we're being punished for what we believe in," Ileys Omar, one of the former Hertz employees, told local TV news outlet KOMO. "It's five minutes. It's not as big [of a] deal as the company's making it."

Read More: Hertz Fires 26 Muslim Workers For Taking Prayer Breaks

The Occupy Wall Street camp at Zucotti Park resembled the early kibbutzim of Israel. It was a self-sustaining scrappy community, with members eating, sleeping, and living collectively, braced against harsh climes, while dreaming up and playing at a better way to live. But in another sense, it wasn't like them at all, in the sense that few kibbutniks ever harbored unpleasant feelings toward Zionist Jews -- that's who they were.

Last autumn a Los Angeles school district fired a substitute teacher for anti-Semitic remarks she made at a recent Occupy Wall Street offshoot in Los Angeles. In an interview with Reason.tv, Patricia McAllister (pictured above) said, "I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government, they need to be run out of this country."

Read More: Teacher Fired For Anti-Semitic Comments At 'Occupy' Rally

Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway has been named in a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination at one of his auto dealerships in Southern California.

The suit, filed this month by former sales manager Timothy Sandquist, accuses the general manager of Elway's Manhattan Beach Toyota outlet of racial discrimination, harassment and maintaining a hostile work environment toward minorities, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In the suit, Sandquist, who is black, also alleges that he was paid less than his white peers and was repeatedly passed over for promotions and raises. He worked at the dealership for 11 years before resigning last year.

Read More: Lawsuit Accuses John Elway Car Dealership of Racial Discrimination

Pepsi Beverages Co. said it would pay $3.1 million to settle federal charges of race discrimination for using criminal background checks to screen out job applicants -- even if they weren't convicted of a crime.

Its settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is part of a national government crackdown on hiring policies that can hurt blacks and Hispanics.

Read More: Pepsi Beverages Pays $3.1 Million In Racial Bias Case

The oldest rule in the book -- that it helps to be good looking -- is getting some new attention.

This past month saw the publication of two books from both sides of the Atlantic that track the power of sex appeal in the workplace. The books, both indirectly and directly, also raise the question of whether a civil society should protect those who don't fit its standards of beauty.

Advocates for the Adonises might counter the very suggestion that such protections should be put in place by arguing that beauty is subjective. But as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said on a case related to pornography, you know it when you see it. Nevertheless, as University of Texas economist Dan Hamermesh demonstrates, there's in fact statistical analysis to back up the belief that the good-looking are given preferred status in the workplace. In promoting the publication this month of his book, "Beauty Pays," Hamermesh states the following in a New York Times op-ed:

"One study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third -- a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000."

The trend, which cuts across gender lines, should be cause for judicial remedy, says Hamermesh.

"With all the gains to being good-looking, you would think that more people would get plastic surgery or makeovers to improve their looks," he also writes. "A more radical solution may be needed: Why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?"

Read More: New Studies Look At The Challenge Of Being The Ugly Worker

In 1999, Nancy McClure wanted to join the National Guard. She was 37, close to when many veterans hope to retire. The recruiter said she was too old. Two years later, she returned to that recruiter's office with two daughters who planned to enlist. McClure learned about an age waiver and promptly joined the Missouri National Guard. She was 40 years old in basic training and in great physical shape. But in 2007, she was almost kicked out. The reason: her weight.

"Before I was deployed to Kosovo, I knew that if I didn't lose weight while I was there, I would not be able to re-enlist," McClure said.

Peaking at 230 pounds in Kosovo, Staff Sgt. McClure lost 45 pounds during the deployment. That loss wasn't enough and back home, McClure found it difficult to maintain good habits. For a 2010 physical fitness test, she was too slow in the running portion by 45 seconds -- that's like an hour when it comes to running. It was time to bring in the big guns.

Read More: Battling Obesity To Stay In The Military

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