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Supreme Court Rules Gay, Transgender Employees Protected by Anti-Discrimination Laws

LGBTQ advocates rally outside the Supreme
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In a major victory for the LGBTQ community, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The decision comes despite the high court’s rightward lurch and demonstrates the major cultural shifts that have taken place in terms of gay rights in recent years. In a 6-3 ruling, the court said that existing federal anti-discrimination laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees.

More than twenty states have laws preventing job discrimination due to gender identity and sexual orientation, while more than a half-dozen have anti-discrimination laws that apply to public employees, according to NBC News. The Supreme Court’s decision will extend those protections across the country. LGBTQ advocates hailed the ruling as a civil rights milestone.

“The Supreme Court’s historic decision affirms what shouldn’t have even been a debate: LGBTQ Americans should be able to work without fear of losing jobs because of who they are,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. “The decision gives us hope that as a country we can unite for the common good and continue the fight for LGBTQ acceptance. Especially at a time when the Trump Administration is rolling back the rights of transgender people and anti-transgender violence continues to plague our nation, this decision is a step towards affirming the dignity of transgender people, and all LGBTQ people.”

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple and one of the only openly gay leaders of a Fortune 500 company, tweeted, “Grateful for today’s decision by the Supreme Court. LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment in the workplace and throughout society, and today’s decision further underlines that federal law protects their right to fairness.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden praised the decision as “a momentous step forward.”

“The story of our nation is one of a relentless march toward greater justice and greater equality for all people,” he said in a statement. “Fifty years ago this month, the first Pride march took place in New York City as a protest — as a call for liberation. Today, by affirming that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect and dignity. That everyone should be able to live openly, proudly, as their true selves without fear.”

The story of our nation is one of a relentless march toward greater justice and greater equality for all people. Fifty years ago this month, the first Pride march took place in New York City as a protest — as a call for liberation. Today, by affirming that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect and dignity. That everyone should be able to live openly, proudly, as their true selves without fear.

In a surprise move, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump-appointee to the bench who is seen as a reliable conservative, not only ruled in favor of extending protections, but penned the decision. He was joined by the court’s four liberal members — Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan — as well as by Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee. Roberts had previously dissented in the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.

Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh all dissented.

The court ruled on three cases in which an employee was fired when their employer discovered they were gay or transgender. In Bostock v. Clayton County, county employee Gerald Bostock was fired after participating in a gay softball league. In Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, a skydiving instructor was fired after telling a customer that he was gay. And in R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes v. EEOC, a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, was fired after informing her employer that she planned to live as a woman.

In each instance, the court ruled that the employers had violated the Title VII prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.

“An employer who fires 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.”

In a blistering dissent, Alito blasted the majority’s “brazen abuse of our authority.”

“Many will applaud today’s decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court’s updating of Title VII,” Alito wrote. “But the question in these cases is not whether discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity should be outlawed. The question is whether Congress did that in 1964. It indisputably did not.”

Kavanaugh wrote a separate dissent, also accusing the majority of usurping the role of Congress and the president. The House of Representatives at the Senate have at different times approved bills that would afford LGBTQ employees protection under Title VII, but they have not been able to pass such a measure into law.