WASHINGTON — In a landmark victory for LGBTQ+ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court held Monday that employers can’t legally fire people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
In a 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that employers who fire individuals “merely for being gay or transgender” violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex and other characteristics — but not specifically gender identity or sexual orientation.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first appointee to the high court, and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices in the case. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh filed dissenting opinions.
“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,” wrote Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a necessary step forward for a nation that continues to fail to protect the LGBTQ+ community under a bigoted and prejudiced Trump administration,” said Congressman Mark Pocan in a statement. “On the heels of recent murders of Black trans women — Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells — and the Trump’s administration decision to legalize healthcare discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, this ruling is monumental progress to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people nationwide.”
Pocan also pointed out that LGBTQ+ people like himself are now protected against workplace discrimination, but there are other areas of life where protections are still lacking. The Equality Act adds or reinforces protections in such areas as public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, housing and credit. as well as employment.
Last year the House passed the Equality Act, but the Senate has not done so. Pocan hoped today’s decision might spur Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “to do his job for once and pass legislation that could make LGBTQ+ equality the law of the land.”
The ruling will have a profound effect on millions of LGBTQ+ people and their families. Nearly 5% of U.S. adults — more than 11 million people — identify as LGBTQ+, according to Reuters, and many report workplace discrimination. More than 40% of lesbian, bisexual and gay people — and 90% of transgender people — have faced employment discrimination based on their sexual orientation, according to court documents.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin tweeted, “The # 6-3 decision is a huge step forward for # equality in America. We must keep marching for full equality for every # American across our country and work to pass the # in the Senate.”
Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Spreitzer also applauded the decision and took note of the timing as well, as June is national Pride month.
“Happy Pride! Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision makes clear what we have known for years: Discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity is both wrong and illegal,” Spreitzer said. “No one should have to worry that their employer can fire them for being who they are or loving who they love.”
Spreitzer also pointed out Wisconsin’s place in the history of such advancements. “The text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination on the basis of sex. Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia affirmed that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and discrimination on the basis of gender identity are forms of sex discrimination, and therefore also prohibited.
“In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but has not yet passed legislation to add gender identity to the list of protected classes that cannot be subject to discrimination,” he added.
Spreitzer said transgender women — and Black transgender women in particular — still face much violence because of who they are.
In the seven years that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has tracked anti-transgender violence, it reports that “an average of at least 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been victims of fatal violence per year.” In 2019 the number was 26, and 91% of them were Black women. (HRC notes that because of statistics that may be lacking in the way crimes are reported the number of transgender victims may be much higher.)
“The logic of today’s ruling makes clear that both Wisconsin and federal non-discrimination laws that provide protections on the basis of sex must be read to include full protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Wisconsinites. I will continue fighting to amend our laws to make these protections explicit … as a society, we must do better.”
HRC president Alphonso David, hailed the “historic” decision Monday. “No one should be denied a job or fired simply because of who they are or whom they love,” he said in a statement.
But he too said more work remains. The high court legalized gay marriage in 2015, but about half of states lack statutes protecting LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed.
She pointed to legislation passed last year by the U.S. House that would amend existing civil rights law to explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender identity and make other changes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “must end his partisan obstruction and allow the Senate to vote on this critical legislation,” she said in a statement.
Justices heard cases last fall involving plaintiffs who argued that they were wrongfully fired because of their gender orientation and sexual identity.
Aimee Stephens — a transgender woman from Michigan — was fired after she came out as transgender by informing her boss she planned to transition from male to female.
Gerald Bostock of Georgia and Donald Zarda of New York were fired after their employers learned of their sexual orientation. Bostock, a social worker, lost his job with Clayton County after joining a gay softball league. Zarda, a skydiving instructor, was fired after informing a customer of his sexual orientation.
In responding to the case in a statement, Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice who argued the case defending Stephens, called it a “landmark victory,” but added, “And though she sadly passed away this May, Aimee, along with our other late client Don Zarda, and Gerald Bostock, all have a place in the history books as people who risked everything to fight discrimination. They lived – and, for Aimee and Don, died – so we could have more legal protections. They won it for all of us.
“Let’s be clear: This means it is illegal to fire someone, or refuse to hire them, for being LGBTQ in all 50 states.”