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Landmark: Supreme Court Rules 1964 Civil Rights Act Protects LGBT Employees

Michael Foust | CrosswalkHeadlines Contributor | Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Landmark: Supreme Court Rules 1964 Civil Rights Act Protects LGBT Employees

Landmark: Supreme Court Rules 1964 Civil Rights Act Protects LGBT Employees

In a landmark decision for the LGBT community, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled employers cannot fire someone merely for being gay or transgender under federal law.

At issue was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it unlawful “for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual ... because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Three LGBT individuals in Michigan, Georgia and New York filed separate suits in federal court, arguing they were fired from their jobs for being gay or transgender and asserting that “sex” in the Civil Rights Act encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases into one.

The court, in a 6-3 decision, sided with the fired employees. Two conservative justices – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch – joined the court’s liberal bloc in the majority.

It’s the biggest legal victory for the LGBT community since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.

Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion.

“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Gorsuch wrote.

He acknowledged the authors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may not have had LGBT individuals in mind when passing it.

“Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees,” Gorsuch wrote. “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion signed by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote his own dissenting opinion.

Alito criticized the majority.

“There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation. The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute, but that is deceptive,” Alito wrote. “... A more brazen abuse of our authority to interpret statutes is hard to recall.

Gorsuch ceded that sex in the 1964 law refers “only to biological distinctions between male and female.”

“Still, that’s just a starting point. The question isn’t just what ‘sex’ meant, but what Title VII says about it,” Gorsuch wrote. “... From the ordinary public meaning of the statute’s language at the time of the law’s adoption, a straightforward rule emerges: An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex.

“... If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee – put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer – a statutory violation has occurred.”

Gorsuch then gave an example: An employer hires two employees, “both of whom are attracted to men.”

“The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman,” Gorsuch wrote. “If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague. Put differently, the employer intentionally singles out an employee to fire based in part on the employee’s sex. ...”

Alito noted that Congress has considered bills adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Civil Rights Act, but none of the proposals have passed both houses.

“The Court tries to convince readers that it is merely enforcing the terms of the statute, but that is preposterous,” Alito wrote. “Even as understood today, the concept of discrimination because of ‘sex’ is different from discrimination because of ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity.’ And in any event, our duty is to interpret statutory terms to ‘mean what they conveyed to reasonable people at the time they were written.’

“... Many will applaud today’s decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court’s updating of Title VII,” Alito added. “But the question in these cases is not whether discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity should be outlawed. The question is whether Congress did that in 1964. It indisputably did not.”

Gorsuch, in the majority opinion, acknowledged that future cases will determine how “doctrines protecting religious liberty” interact with Title VII and the court’s newest opinion.

“While other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration,” he wrote, “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.”

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Christian Ouellet

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist PressChristianity TodayThe Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Landmark: Supreme Court Rules 1964 Civil Rights Act Protects LGBT Employees