In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court has ruled that employers cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in what the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters are calling a “much-needed victory”.
The court determined that discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires that an employer intentionally treat their employee differently because of their sex, which is a direct violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII banned discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin" more than half-a-century ago and although the original provision may not have directly referenced members of those who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender, the court ruling determines that Title VII’s ban on discrimination extends to those individuals. Currently, less than half of US states have anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion and in doing so boils down the hearing to a single question: “If an employer takes an employment action solely because of the sexual orientation or gender identity of an employee or applicant, has that employer necessarily discriminated because of biological sex?”
The answer, he says, “must be no,” unless discriminating because of sexual orientation or gender identity inherently constitutes discrimination because of sex.
The decision comes on June 15 as many parts of the world are in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the LGBTQ+ Pride celebration. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the judges saw three different cases argued on the same day in October 2019 in which the petitioners alleged their employers had discriminated based on their sexual or gender status. In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Aimee Stephens worked as a funeral director and said that she was fired when she informed the owner that she is transgender and planned to come to work as a woman. Skydiving instructor Donald Zarda argued in Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda that he was fired because of his sexual orientation and Gerald Bostock similarly contended in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that he was fired when his employer learned that he was gay.
“There are truly no words to describe just how elated I am,” said Gerald Bostock in a statement. Bostock worked as a child welfare services coordinator and was allegedly fired after joining a gay recreational softball team.
“When I was fired seven years ago, I was devastated. But this fight became about so much more than me…Today, we can go to work without the fear of being fired for who we are and who we love. Yet, there is more work to be done. Discrimination has no place in this world, and I will not rest until we have equal rights for all.”
In each case, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation notes that the employers had asked the Supreme Court to reverse the rulings of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which said that it was “dedicated to protecting the rights of employees to be judged by their talents and accomplishments alone.” The ruling further contends that LGBTQ people "are, and should be, protected from discrimination under federal law."