The Supreme Court hands a major victory to LGBTQ workers

The justices said a major federal civil-rights law covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.


June 16, 2020

Yesterday, the decades-long fight for LGBTQ rights took another momentous step forward.

The US Supreme Court ruled that a major federal civil-rights law protects gay and transgender workers from discrimination in the workplace.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing for the majority. If you love reading Supreme Court opinions — and who doesn’t at a historic time like this? — you can dive down the 172-page rabbit hole here.

Here’s the short version

The decision concerned Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

It involved the cases of 2 gay men who said they had been fired over their sexual orientation, and a transgender woman who was fired after telling her employer that she was transgender.

When it filed briefs with the court last year, the Trump administration argued that the law doesn’t cover discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The majority disagreed. Here’s the clincher from Justice Gorsuch’s opinion:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. 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. 

What it means for businesses and workers

For one thing, it brings consistency to a confusing patchwork of state laws. 

  • Many states already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but more than half of them haven’t yet done so, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that there are 8.1m LGBT workers in the US who are over the age of 16.
  • 3.9m of them live in states without laws barring LGBT employment discrimination. 

The ruling now offers them protection, no matter where they live. There is one caveat: Fortune points out that the law only applies to employers with 15 or more workers.

The plaudits poured in

The CEOs of the nation’s tech giants — including Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — all praised the ruling. Their companies had signed on to a friend of the court brief calling on the court to protect LGBTQ workers.

Postscript: Read this remembrance of Aimee Stephens, a plaintiff in the case, who died last month — just weeks before Monday’s decision was handed down.

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