In a landmark ruling for LGBTQ rights in America, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people in the workplace. The law specifically protects employees from job discrimination “on the basis of sex.” But many states and cities interpreted it to only apply to discrimination against women, not against LGBTQ employees.
The ambiguity of the law meant that, in many parts of America, a worker could be fired just for being gay, lesbian, transgender, or otherwise deviating from the heterosexual norm. It didn’t matter if the employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity had nothing to do with the job requirements, or if the employee never mentioned their sexual orientation in the workplace. Discrimination against LGBTQ people remained legal, leaving an employee with no legal recourse if they were fired solely because of their identity.
“Today’s decision clarifies for the first time that LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination from coast to coast, including in states and cities that have no express protection for LGBTQ people in their own laws,” the American Civil Liberties Union reported. Surprisingly, the conservative-leaning court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of LGBTQ rights. Neil Gorsuch, a conservative justice appointed to the Supreme Court by President Trump, wrote the majority opinion. He joined the court’s four liberals as well as Chief Justice John Roberts.
The Supreme Court handed down the ruling after reviewing three cases that dealt with discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace. One case, Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC and Aimee Stephens, involved a transgender woman named Aimee Stephens, who began working at a funeral home before transitioning from male to female. After Stephens disclosed her transgender identity and said she planned to live as a woman, her boss fired her.
In the second case, a male employee of a skydiving company, Don Zarda, was fired after he told a female customer he was gay. Zarda said he shared the information to make the woman more comfortable, as they were strapped together in preparation for “tandem jumping.” Zarda’s employer deemed the remark “inappropriate” and fired him. As Zarda’s attorneys argued in court, it’s hard to imagine a heterosexual employee being fired for an identical remark—therefore, it was discriminatory.
The third case involved a Georgia social worker, Gerald Bostock, who says he was fired from his job working with high-risk youth after his employers found out he belonged to a “gay recreational softball league.” Bostock had been working for the child welfare services department of Clayton County, Georgia, for a full decade, and his termination left him without health insurance as he was battling prostate cancer.
All three cases involved long-term employees who had not been accused of malfeasance or failure to perform their job duties. They were simply fired for identifying as LGBTQ. As the plaintiff’s attorneys argued before the Supreme Court, the actions that prompted the employees’ terminations—such as joining a softball league—would not be controversial, much less a firing offense, if a heterosexual person had done it. Therefore, the terminations were a form of sex discrimination.
Writing for the majority, Gorsuch affirmed that federal anti-discrimination laws should be interpreted to include LGBTQ individuals.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids…Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result.” He added, “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling, people who identify as LGBTQ will no longer have to hide their sexuality or gender identity out of fear that they will be fired. The ruling came down in the middle of Pride Month, giving the LGBTQ community and its allies even more to celebrate. No matter where they work, no one should have to face this kind of discrimination.