Supreme Court Rules Federal Law Protects LGBTQ Employees From Discrimination

Labor & Employment

In a historic decision issued on Monday, June 15, 2020, certain to have a wide-ranging impact on both individuals and employers across the country, the United States Supreme Court ruled in three combined cases that federal law protects LGBTQ individuals from employment discrimination. A 6-3 majority of the Court held that the federal prohibition against sex discrimination set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The cases were the Court’s first on LGBTQ civil rights since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had written the Court’s opinion legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan holds that “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.” Consequently, “sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Today’s decision resolved three cases from different states, all involving employees who were terminated from their positions because of their sexual orientation or transgender status. In one case, a woman was fired from the Michigan funeral home where she worked after she revealed her gender identity. In another case, a New York skydiving instructor was terminated after he told a customer he was gay. The final case involved a social worker in Georgia who was fired for “conduct unbecoming” of a public employee after he joined a gay recreational softball league.

Lawyers for the employers in question, the Trump administration, and many states had argued that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination does not encompass sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and therefore the terminations at issue did not violate federal anti-discrimination law. But the Court’s majority held that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex,” and therefore such discrimination violates federal law.

The majority’s landmark opinion concluded by holding that “in Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”

Gorsuch wrote that it was not necessary to consider that the lawmakers who drafted the Civil Rights Act may not have anticipated it being applied to LGBTQ individuals. “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Today’s decision ensures that LGBTQ individuals across the country are more broadly protected from workplace discrimination under federal law. While in recent years some states and localities had moved to ban sexual orientation discrimination, more than half of states do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity in their anti-discrimination laws. The states’ laws that do prohibit such discrimination offer only a patchwork of protections, with some protecting only gender identity, for instance, and some making a distinction between private and public employees.

For additional information on this topic, please contact your regular Calfee attorney or one of the attorneys listed below.


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