The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that federal employment laws protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination, delivering a major victory to the LGBTQ community amid concerns over an erosion of their rights in recent years.
In a landmark 6-3 decision, the conservative-controlled court ruled that an “employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender” violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2017, joined the majority opinion. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s other Supreme Court appointee, led three conservative justices in dissenting, arguing the issue should be settled through legislation.
The historic decision came amid concerns that the Supreme Court, where five conservatives hold sway, will roll back legal protections for minorities, including LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) people. In 2018, the court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Although 21 states currently prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, there are no existing federal laws against such discrimination. The Supreme Court ruling ends the legal patchwork for LGBTQ worker rights and establishes employment anti-discrimination protection nationwide.
LGBTQ rights advocates hailed the ruling, which came nearly five years after the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in the United States.
“This is a landmark victory for LGBTQ equality,” Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization, tweeted.
Katy Joseph, director of policy and advocacy at Interfaith Alliance, called the decision “a watershed moment for equality.”
In a statement, Joseph said, “Too often employers overstep the boundaries of personal religious freedom – the right to believe as we choose – to impose their beliefs on others through staffing decisions and workplace culture. Turning away LGBTQ+ job applicants and employees, or terminating their employment due to their identity, isn’t religious freedom – it’s discrimination.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council disagreed with the ruling.
"Allowing judges to rewrite the Civil Rights Act to add gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes poses a grave threat to religious liberty. We've already witnessed in recent years how courts have used the redefinition of words as a battering ram to crush faith-based businesses and organizations," concluded Perkins.
The civil rights act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers “because of” their “sex, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The question before the justices was whether the phrase “because of sex” applied to the sexual orientation of LGBTQ employees.
In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, under the Obama administration, ruled that it did.
But the Trump administration has taken the opposite view, siding with employers in three separate discrimination cases that the word “sex” does “not include sexual orientation.”
In two of the cases – Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude Express v. Zarda – the question was whether Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination extended to sexual orientation. Gerald Bostock, a social worker, and Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor, claimed they were fired because they are gay.
In the third case – R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the justices were asked to determine whether Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination covered transgender people. The transgender woman at the center of the case, Aimee Stephens, who died last month, claimed that she lost her funeral director's job because of her identity.
Federal courts of appeals had reached different decisions in the three cases, prompting the Supreme Court to step in to resolve the dispute.
In his dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that that while he agreed that LTBTQ people “cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” the decision whether to “expand” the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex to LGBTQ workers was for Congress and the President to make, not the Supreme Court.
“But we are judges, not Members of Congress,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Since 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have passed competing pieces of legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But an identical bill has yet to pass both chambers during a two-year congressional period, preventing legislation from going to the president’s desk.
Last year, the House passed the Equality Act by a vote of 236-173. Joseph said it was time for the Senate to follow suit.