The LGBTQ community touted a tremendous victory from the Supreme Court on June 15th— it is now illegal to fire workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Transgender Rights in the Workplace
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex, now also protects gay, lesbian, or transgender employees from being fired based on their sexual orientation. The ruling also upheld lower court rulings saying that sex discrimination included sexual orientation discrimination.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court in Bockstock v. Clayton County ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” Authored by Justice Gorsuch, the majority opinion made a textualist argument, saying that the broad language of Title VII can lead to a broad meaning: In saying it is against the law for an employer to fire an employee on the basis of sex, such is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
What is Title VII Generally?
Passed in the height of the Civil Rights era, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin.” Thus, while it has been illegal for employers to refuse to hire or fire any person “because of…sex” for several decades now, confusion has loomed over courts on whether Title VII includes sexual orientation and gender identity protection.
Aside from a 1989 Court ruling that gender stereotyping cannot factor into employment decisions in the workplace, no further decisions came until 2015, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that Title VII does also prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Most recently, the Supreme Court considered three cases where employees were discharged simply for being homosexual or transgender, resulting in a suit alleging Title VII sex discrimination. The June 15th ruling was then widely welcomed by the millions of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Nonetheless, there are still gaps in the historic ruling. The new law does not protect those who work at companies with under 15 workers. Additionally, it is uncertain how transgender people can navigate bathroom use and workplace dress codes, or whether an employer can discharge an LGBTQ worker for religious reasons. Also, employers do not necessarily have to fund healthcare benefits for their transgender workers. The Court said they would not be addressing such issues at the moment and that future litigation would take care of it.
With regards to employers, a but-for causation standard is used to determine their liability. Even if other factors contributed to the decision to fire an employee, as long as the employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity was one but-for cause of the decision, then that employer has violated the law. Employers are advised to revise their handbooks and employee training procedures in accordance with this ruling.
LGBTQ Workplace Rights
The ruling itself is surprising, coming from a conservative court and President Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Justice Gorsuch. The decision is thus being seen as demonstrative of justices’ ability to form their own opinions outside of partisan bounds, but also the impact of public opinion on Supreme Court decisions.
While the Trump administration generally opposes pro-transgender legislation, Gorsuch ruled in favor of the LGBTQ community: “Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result… But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.” In other words, even though the drafters did not necessarily contemplate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applying to sexual orientation, Gorsuch argued that the law should indeed protect transgender workers.
While many states have their own laws prohibiting firing based on sexual orientation, some laws only protect public employees, and others do not protect LGBTQ workers at all. Thus, the Supreme Court ruling now extends protections to gay, bisexual, and transgender workers throughout the country.