In a Landmark Decision, Supreme Court Rules Title VII Protects LGBTQ+ Workers

June 15, 2020

Types : Alerts

Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status. Put simply, an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay, lesbian, or transgender violates Title VII.

Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the opinion in the 6-3 ruling, affirmatively answering the question of whether Title VII forbids employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers. The Court reasoned that:

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.

Title VII makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees “on the basis of . . . sex.”  The question of whether “sex” included gay, lesbian, and transgender workers had divided federal courts, with many federal courts rejecting claims that Title VII included protections for LGBTQ+ workers.  As a result of the Court’s opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, there is now clearly federal protection from discrimination for LGBTQ+ workers.

The Court heard three cases concerning this issue: Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda (involving a skydiving instructor who was fired after revealing to a client that he was gay), Bostock v. Clayton County (involving a social worker fired from his job after his boss learned of his membership in a gay softball league), and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC (the first transgender rights case to come before the Court, involving a funeral director who was fired after she announced her gender transition). Before these cases reached the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit had previously held that Title VII did not prohibit employers from firing employees for being gay, allowing Mr. Bostock’s suit to be dismissed as a matter of law. The Second and Sixth Circuits had allowed the claims of Mr. Zarda and Ms. Stephens, respectively, to proceed under Title VII.

Responding to arguments about potential interferences between Title VII and religious liberty, the Court left open the possibility that employers in other cases “may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration.”  The Court, however, did not directly address any potential issues because “none of the employers before us today represent in this Court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.”

Because many states and local governments already have laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, many employers already have protections in place for LGBTQ+ workers.  Nevertheless, as a result of the Court’s decision, employers should review and revise their policies, as necessary, to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status.  If you have questions about Title VII and its implications for your business, the Labor and Employment attorneys at Montgomery McCracken are available to assist.



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