Adelante Magazine applauds the Supreme Court decision affirming civil rights law protections to LGBT people which was released to the public on June 15, 2020. The community has been waiting for these consolidated decisions from three cases in front of the court.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that LGTBQ+ employees are protected from workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote the majority decision finding Title VII’s protection extends to sexual orientation and gender identity. He was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.
The decision provides consistency and may require reversal of many measures that effectively allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While the scope of the Court’s decision will be debated, its implications for workplaces across the country likely will be significant. There are parts of the country which, up until this point, allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is not the case in places like California which has long held protections to LGBT people.
This is perhaps the most significant ruling for LGBTQ people by the court because under this ruling, LGBTQ communities are protected from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and mandates that protections are extended under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This decision is perhaps even more significant than that of Marriage Equality given that nearly all people in our community must work to provide for themselves and now their employment will be equally protected under United States law as this ruling takes effect.
It is also significant because the majority decision was written by Justice Gorsuch, considered a conservative judge and an appointee of President Donald Trump. Also significant was that Justice Gorsuch was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, also considered a conservative judge and an appointee of President George W. Bush.
Supreme Court Decision
The Court ruled Title VII’s ban on “sex”-based discrimination prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. It also ruled Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender claimants based on their transgender status. Justice Gorsuch wrote, “When an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily intentionally discriminates against that individual in part because of sex [in violation of Title VII].”
Further, the decision stated that “the plaintiff’s sex need not be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action” for Title VII to apply.
The dissenting justices’ opinions largely relied on a “strict constructionist” interpretation of Title VII, finding the law’s prohibition against “sex”-based discrimination was not intended in 1964 to extend to sexual orientation or gender identity. Justice Gorsuch characterized that view as improperly holding that, where any “new [statutory]application is both unexpected and important, even if it is clearly commanded by existing law, the Court should merely point out the question, refer the subject back to Congress, and decline to enforce the law’s plain terms in the meantime.”
Justice Gorsuch wrote, “This Court has long rejected that sort of reasoning.” Instead, he stated, “The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
By finding Title VII bars workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Court’s decision effectively extends that prohibition to state and local jurisdictions that were silent on the topic or explicitly allowed such discrimination.
However, it is unclear how cases where employers claim religious liberty objections will be affected. The Court’s decision does not resolve the tension between workplace “religious freedom” laws and Title VII as the litigants in Bostock, Zarda, and R.G. & G.R. Harris did not raise religious freedom objections on appeal. As the Court stated, “[H]ow these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases ….”
What this may mean.
The Court’s decision will significantly affect other court cases, federal and state legislation.
The Court’s decision largely aligns with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) position that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited under Title VII. While Circuit Courts, the U.S. Department of Justice, and many district courts had reached contrary decisions, the Court’s decision likely invalidates many of those.
The Court’s decision makes it more likely that adverse employment actions against LGBTQ+ workers would be found unlawful. As the federal agency that handles investigations into workplace discrimination, the EEOC already was receiving an increasing number of claims and pursuing increasing monetary awards in sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination cases. The agency likely will be emboldened to commence many more such lawsuits against employers in federal court.
It remains to be seen how courts will apply this prohibition where employers voice religious objections in decisions involving LGBTQ+ workers. Nonetheless, the EEOC likely will intensify its pursuit of awards for workers in such cases.