In a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ+ workers from discrimination. The opinion, which was released on Monday, June 15, determined that gay, lesbian, and transgender workers should be protected by the language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits employers from discriminating based on religion, race, national origin, and — in wording that was closely examined for this ruling — sex, The New York Times reports.
In the majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote, “In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There, in Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear," he continued. "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.”
The vote was split six to three, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Gorsuch, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor in the majority. Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas dissented.
The lawyers for the employers involved in the case — as well as the Trump administration — contended that “sex” discrimination in 1964 only had to do with biases against women or men, based on the common understanding of the term sex at the time. In the '60s, lawmakers wouldn't have been considering sexual orientation or gender identity, they argued. They opined that Congress should pass a new law if they wanted protections for LGBTQ+ workers.
The Court was looking at two different sets of cases. One included two suits from two men who said they’d been fired because they were gay. The second case concerned a lawsuit from a transgender woman named Aimee Stephens, who said her employer let her go after she became open about her gender identity in the workplace.
About 11 million people in the U.S. identify as transgender, lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 88% of them are employed, according to statistics from the The National LGBTQ Workers Center.
This case wasn't a matter of constitutional law; instead, it looked into “statutory interpretation," or how courts can interpret and execute laws. That means the ruling won’t necessarily safeguard workplace protections for LGBTQ+ folks in the future, Politico reports.
Still, many are seeing it as a crucial and noteworthy step towards general equity for the LGBTQ+ community. "Today's decision is one of the court's most significant rulings ever with respect to the civil rights of gay and transgender individuals," Steve Vladeck, professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told CNN. “[It] opens the door to a host of other challenges to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status on the ground that it, too, is impermissibly based upon sex.”
Several politicians tweeted in support of the ruling. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, wrote: “You should never have to fear losing your job simply because of who you are or who you love.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, tweeted: “Today's decision is another step in our march toward equality for all. The Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect.”
And although there are still battles to be fought when it comes to true equality for the LGBTQ+ community, many advocates are considering this ruling a firm and resounding win.