Are LGBT employees protected from discrimination? Supreme Court to decide

US Supreme Court LGBT Employees

The nine justices of the United States Supreme Court were photographed Nov. 30, 2018. Seated from left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Samuel A. Alito. Standing from left to right: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Photo: Collection of the United States Supreme Court.

UPDATE: On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to hear three cases addressing whether Title VII, a federal civil rights law,  protects LGBT employees from discrimination.

Title VII

Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  bans workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, or sex, but does not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity. The plaintiffs contend that the section of Title VII that bars employers from discriminating “because of…sex” also should be interpreted to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The court’s decision to hear the case comes amid a national movement pushing for a ban on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

The Supreme Court, begins its next term October 8, and these cases will be heard on that date. The court’s rulings are expected in Summer 2020.

LGBT employment protections

For oral arguments, the justices have combined two of the cases because they both ask whether sexual orientation is included in the ban on discrimination because of sex. The third case, which will be argued separately, asks if the same ban prohibits discrimination against transgender persons, as well as sex stereotyping. The Supreme Court, in a 1989 ruling for Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, has already said sex stereotyping violates Title VII.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, ruled in 2015 that Title VII protects against LGBT discrimination in the workplace, and federal courts have agreed.

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“Millions of LGBT people rely on those federal protections, and countless businesses across the country have changed their policies to protect LGBT workers,” said Shannon Minter, legal director with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “A Supreme Court decision reversing these established protections would be catastrophic for LGBT people and disruptive for businesses, who would face a patchwork of conflicting state laws.”

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Supreme Court cases

Here are the three cases the Supreme Court will hear.

  • In Bostock v. Clayton County, a county child welfare services coordinator claims he was fired when his employer learned he is gay. In 2018, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reconsider a 1979 decision wrongly excluding sexual orientation discrimination from coverage under Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination, and denied his appeal.
  • In Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, a skydiving instructor claimed he was fired from his job after coming out as gay. A federal trial court rejected his discrimination claim, saying that the Civil Rights Act does not protect a gay man from losing his job. In February 2018, the full 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII.
  • In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC & Aimee Stephens, a funeral home owner allegedly fired a funeral director after the director informed the owner that she is transgender and planned to come to work as woman.  The owner said it would be “unacceptable” for her to appear and behave as a woman. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March 2018 that firing her for being transgender and departing from sex stereotypes violated Title VII.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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