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What is Discrimination?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines discrimination as:

A socially structured action that is unfair or unjustified and harms individuals and groups. Discrimination can be attributed to social interactions that occur to protect more powerful and privileged groups at the detriment of other groups.

According on New York State Human Rights Law, discrimination is unequal treatment of individuals or groups based on:




National origin

Sexual orientation

Military status



Domestic violence victim status


Pregnancy-related condition

Predisposing genetic characteristics

Prior arrest or conviction record

Gender Identity or Expression

Familial status

Lawful source of income (in housing only)

Retaliation for opposing unlawful discriminatory practices

The categories above are protected classes in state Human Rights law. It is unlawful to discriminate against a member of a protected class when it comes to housing, employment, public accommodation, credit and lending, certain educational institutions, and volunteer firefighting organizations.


All citizens should be aware of their rights under Human Rights Law, including their right to file complaints against alleged acts of discrimination. In order for an alleged discriminatory act to be illegal, there must be a connection between what happened to you and the trait/characteristic protected by the Human Rights Law. Making a Human Rights complaint is free for the person making the complaint.


If you are an employer, housing professional, lending institution, or business, it is important to understand your responsibilities under the Human Rights Law. Awareness of the laws can help you create equitable environments in our community, as well as prevent costly and time-consuming legal proceedings.

Descriptions of Protected Classes


The Human Rights Law protects person(s) age 18 or older. A person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of his or her age in the area of employment or housing. Age discrimination usually occurs in employment when older workers are fired, replaced by younger workers, or treated differently than younger colleagues. Employees cannot be forced to retire except for very limited situations relative to tenured professors and certain highly paid executives.


Relates to a person’s religious beliefs. The wearing of religious garb and the observance of religious holidays and practices are protected under the Human Rights Law.

Race & Color

Race and color pertains to a person’s racial background and/or skin color.


Discrimination on the basis of sex includes unequal treatment in the workplace, sexual harassment, and pregnancy discrimination. Under the Human Rights Law, men and women are entitled to equal pay, benefits, working conditions, and seniority rights; men and women are entitled to be free from unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature, and a hostile work environment; and pregnant women are guaranteed the right to work, and to enjoy the same medical, vacation and disability leave policies as non-pregnant co-workers. Although sex discrimination occurs most frequently in the workplace, it also occurs in areas concerning housing, credit, and public accommodations.

Sexual Orientation

The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act of January 16, 2003, amends the New York State Human Rights Law to prohibit actual or perceived sexual orientation discrimination in places of public accommodation, non-sectarian educational institutions, credit transactions, housing, commercial property, and in obtaining employment. Sexual Orientation is defined as gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and asexual.

National Origin

Is based on one’s national group and includes one’s ancestry.

Marital Status

A person may not be discriminated against on the basis of whether or not he or she is married, divorced, single, separated or widowed.

Domestic Violence Victim Status

The New York State Human Rights Law was amended effective July 7, 2009 to provide protection from employment discrimination for victims of domestic violence. The Human Rights Law defines a domestic violence victim as an individual who is a victim of an act, which would constitute a family offense under N.Y. Family Court Act § 812. It is unlawful to discriminate against a domestic violence victim in employment and housing.


A disability is a physical, mental, or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or neurological conditions that prevent the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by clinical or laboratory diagnostics techniques. If a person has a record of a disability or is perceived by others to have a disability, whether or not the person does, he or she is also protected under the Human Rights Law. Under the jurisdiction of employment, a person is protected when the disability does not interfere with the ability to reasonably perform job duties. It is illegal to discriminate against people who have, are perceived to have, perceived to be at risk for HIV/AIDS.

Military Status

Discrimination on the basis of military status involves denying equal employment opportunity to any person because of that person’s past, current or future membership, service or obligation in a uniformed service.

Arrest & Conviction

It is unlawful for any person, agency, bureau, corporation or association, including the State and any political subdivision thereof, to deny employment because of an individual’s conviction record, where such denial is in violation of Article 23-a of the Correction Law. A potential employer cannot make any inquiry about an arrest record, but can inquire if a potential employee has been convicted of a crime.

Predisposing Genetic Characteristics

Employment discrimination on the basis of genetic predisposition or carrier status is prohibited by the Human Rights Law. The legislature added this protection to the law in 1996.

Familial Status (in housing only)

Discrimination in the rental, purchase, or lease of housing on the basis of familial status is prohibited. Familial status means any person who is pregnant, has a child, or is in the process of securing legal custody of any individual under the age of 18; or one or more individuals under the age of 18 living with a parent, a legal guardian, or a designee of a parent.

Domestic Workers (in employment only)

It is unlawful for an employer to engage in unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to a domestic worker when: (i) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment; (ii) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or (iii) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Source of Income

New York State Human Rights Law states it is illegal for anyone to deny you housing based on the type of lawful income you receive. Source of income discrimination is often directed at those whose lawful income comes from sources other than a paycheck, including social security payments, any form of government assistance, or child support (From New York State Attorney General website:

New York State Human Rights law prohibits discrimination in:


Apprenticeship and training

Purchase and rental of housing and commercial space

Places of public accommodation

Educational institutions

All credit transactions


If you think you have been discriminated against in one of these areas please contact our office: 
Tompkins County Office of Human Rights

We can help you understand your rights and identify whether your experience falls within Human Rights Law.