Supreme Court Rules That Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers
The landmark ruling is being praised as a massive victory for LGBTQ+ rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also protects gay and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination. The landmark ruling is being praised as a massive victory for LGBTQ+ rights—and one that came from a conservative-majority court.
The court’s decision followed several cases brought on by gay and transgender employees, including Aimee Stephens, who was fired by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit two weeks after coming as transgender in a letter to her boss in 2013. She had worked there for nearly six years as a funeral director. After she was fired, Stephens sued the funeral home, claiming that she was fired because she was transgender. Her boss, Thomas Rost, the owner of the funeral home, said in court proceedings that he fired Stephens “because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. … He wanted to dress like a woman.”
Stephens’ case was backed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as the ACLU, and eventually reached the Supreme Court, which began hearing the case in October 2019. It was the first time a major case regarding trans rights made it to the nation’s highest court.
Stephens died on May 12 at age 59 of complications from kidney failure, just weeks before the Supreme Court reached its final decision.
The lawyers for Stephens’ case, as well as two other cases involving LGBTQ+ people who claim they were fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, argued that their employment should be protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to fire employees based on characteristics including race, sex, and religion.
The Court ruled 6-to-3 in favor of the act protecting LGBTQ+ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation, with conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch siding with the four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
“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 as the lead author of the majority opinion. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, gay and transgender workers may be protected from discrimination in the workplace in 32 states, but only 21 of these states afford these workers recourse under the law. But the new ruling protects LGBTQ+ rights at the federal level – despite the Supreme Court’s majority of conservative justices (two of whom, Gorsuch and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, have been appointed by President Trump). Kavanaugh was in the minority who dissented.
Many LGBTQ+ groups and advocates celebrated the ruling. Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David called it a “landmark victory for #LGBTQ equality.”
After hearing about the ruling, ACLU lawyer and trans activist Chase Strangio, who worked on Stephens’ legal team for the case, “found a moment to feel joy today and energy for the many fights ahead.”
GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “The decision gives us hope that as a country we can unite for the common good and continue the fight for LGBTQ acceptance.”
The ruling comes just days after the Trump administration’s rollback of protections for LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination in health care and health insurance on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – a move that was introduced on the four-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead.
The Supreme Court also announced on Monday that it would not hear appeals for several cases in which gun rights advocates claimed their Second Amendment rights were being denied.