On Monday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that existing federal law forbids job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The ruling is a landmark victory for the LGBTQ+ community, and a surprising decision coming from a majority conservative court.
In a 6–3 vote, the Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 inherently makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers because of their gender or sexual orientation. The language of Title VII explicitly mentions “sex” as a protected category. The question was whether the wording could be correctly interpreted to expand beyond the definition of biological sex to cover sexual orientation and gender identity as well. Upholding rulings from lower courts, the Court decided that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of sex discrimination.
Neil Gorsuch wrote the decision — a surprising move considering he was President Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined him, along with the Court’s four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer. Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel A. Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” the decision says. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
A large debate in the midst of this argument had to do with the intentions of lawmakers in 1964. In August, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Supreme Court brief that advised the justices to rule against Title VII applying to LGBTQ+ people. The DOJ argued that in 1964, the understanding of sexuality and gender identity was not mainstream, and therefore the law could only be applied to people who are cisgender.
However, Gorsuch wrote in the decision, “Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result, but the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”
He went on to assert that only the written word is the law — not implications surrounding it.
Across the country, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, but this decision prevents this kind of discrimination across the board.
This decision is a victory for Gerald Bodstock, who was fired from a job as a welfare services coordinator for Clayton County, Georgia after joining a gay softball team. It’s also a victory for the relatives of the late Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who was fired after he told a female client not to feel uncomfortable that they were strapped together because he was gay.
The Court conceded that sexual orientation was not on lawmakers’ minds in 1964 when Title VII was passed, but that if an employee would fire a male worker for dating males and not a female worker for dating males, then the employer’s action applies directly to sex.
Aimee Stephens, who also died in May before her case reached the Supreme Court, was a transgender woman who was fired from her job at a funeral home because she refused to wear the men’s uniform.
While the DOJ’s brief tried to convince the Court that Stephens’ identity was not protected by Title VII, the ACLU argued that if Stephens was assigned female at birth, she would not have requested to wear a different uniform, hence making sex relevant in cases of transgender discrimination. The Court’s view aligned with that of the ACLU.
The Supreme Court victory for LGBTQ+ individuals comes just days after the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era policy that protected LGBTQ+ healthcare patients from discrimination. Trump announced this decision on the anniversary of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, in the wake of the coronavirus sweeping the nation and as protests against police brutality against the Black community raged.
In light of the state of the country, many LGBTQ+ organizations are applauding the decision, but reminding the public that more work needs to be done to protect LGBTQ+ people of all races, socioeconomic statuses and abilities.
“These decisions impact areas of the law where Congress has prohibited sex discrimination, but there are too many places in law that lack these protections,” the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement. “The Senate should join the House and move immediately to pass the Equality Act—which would codify protections for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, credit, education and jury service as well as add much-needed protections for sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in public spaces and services, as well as federally-funded programs.”