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Supreme Court Rules Title VII Protects LGBT Workers Against Discrimination

Jun 16, 2020

On Monday, June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States for the first time granted important anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender workers nationwide, including in North Carolina. The Court ruled that a landmark civil rights law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ruling concerns Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal law that prohibits private and public employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. The decision examined whether the term “sex” includes protection for individuals due to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative judge and President Donald Trump’s first appointed SCOTUS Justice, wrote for the 6-3 majority by relying on textualism, a method of interpreting law based only on the words and meaning of the text, rather than legislative history or what a lawmaker may have meant at the time it was passed.

Writing for the Court, Gorsuch notes:

“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. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

About The Case

The Supreme Court’s ruling is viewed as a major victory for LGBTQ advocates. While workers in roughly half of the country have been protected by state laws that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, no federal or North Carolina law explicitly prohibited LGBTQ workers from being fired on that basis – until now.

The decision stems from three separate cases brought from workers who claimed they were fired from their jobs because they were gay or transgender. They argued Title VII – which prohibits employment discrimination based on “sex” also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.

For advocates and workers nationwide, the ruling means gay, lesbian, and transgender workers are finally protected by federal law, and that they cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against in the terms of their employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity – either in part or in whole. As Justice Gorsuch wrote:

“It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred.”

The three workers who brought the cases include:

  • Gerald Bostock, who claimed he was fired in 2013 from his job as a Clayton County, GA employee because he was gay, and whose appeal was turned down because the appellate court ruled termination for homosexuality was not prohibited by Title VII (Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County);
  • Donald Zarda, who was fired from his job as a skydiving instructor in New York in 2010, and whose estate won on appeal when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Title VII included sexual orientation, in part because “legal doctrine evolves” (Altitude Express v. Melissa Zarda); and
  • Aimee Stephens, a transgender funeral director from Michigan who was fired after she announced her lifelong struggle with gender identity, and her decision to present as a woman (R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

In discussing his approach of interpreting the text of the law, Gorsuch added:

“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”

Though the decision has major implications in private and public employment, questions still remain. In its next term, The Supreme Court will have to determine whether individuals, businesses, and organizations can cite religion when contesting enforcement of anti-discrimination laws – which could, in essence, provide a religious exemption and constitutional right to discriminate.

The ruling may also create challenges when it comes to implementing the Department of Health and Human Services’ newly finalized rule to interpret “sex” as male or female “as determined by biology” – a position that could allow health plans to discriminate on the basis of gender identity if the rule takes effect.

Employment Law & Wrongful Termination

Monday’s decision will have a large impact for millions of workers at small and large businesses who were not previously protected by state laws or formal employer policies. In short, the decision means that employers who fire or otherwise discriminate against employees for being gay, lesbian, or transgender violate federal law.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer workers can now bring a case if they have experienced discrimination in the workplace. Just as workers fired on the basis of their race, religious beliefs, national origin, or gender can pursue civil claims over employment discrimination and wrongful determination, so too can workers who were fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

At Edwards Kirby, our civil rights and employment lawyers advocate for victims of discrimination and discriminatory treatment. If you have questions about employment discrimination, wrongful termination, or another employment law matter, we’re available to help. Call or contact us online to speak with an attorney.

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