by Sofia Rossi and Maddie Dewhirst
National/World Editor and News Editor
In a highly anticipated and groundbreaking moment in the battle for LGBTQ equality, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, Jun. 15, in a 6-3 decision that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender individuals from discrimination in the workplace. This case marks the first time since 2018 that the Supreme Court has weighed in on LGBTQ rights— the same year, the majority opinion writer for all four previous major LGBTQ rights decisions in the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, retired.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The question facing the court was whether discrimination against LGBTQ employees violated the provision barring “sex discrimination.”
The court examined two sets of lawsuits when coming to its decision. The first involved a pair of cases from two gay men who both said they were fired because of their sexual orientation. The second concerned the firing of a transgender employee after she told her coworkers that she planned to live openly as a woman.
In the first case pertaining to gay rights—Bostock v. Clayton County—Gerald Bostock, a coordinator for child welfare services, was fired shortly after he decided to join a gay recreational softball league in Clayton County, Georgia. Though his employer contested that he fired Mr. Bostock for misusing county funds, the county claimed that, regardless, the case should be dismissed on grounds that Title VII did not prohibit employers from firing workers based on their sexual orientation. After Monday’s ruling, Mr. Bostock expressed gratitude for the outcome: “All I wanted from the beginning was to have my day in court. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for for seven years.” With protections under Title VII, Mr. Bostock can now present his case in Clayton County.
The companion case involved a skydiving instructor, Donald Zarda, who was fired from Altitude Express Inc. after a female customer submitted a complaint about having to be strapped to Mr. Zarda during a tandem skydive. In an attempt to ease the customer’s concerns before the dive, Mr. Zarda told her he was “100 percent gay,” a remark that ultimately led to his dismissal. His estate continued to prosecute the case—Altitude Express v. Zarda—after his death in a skydiving accident in 2014.
In the standalone case involving transgender employment protections—R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—funeral director Aimee Stephens’ employer, Thomas Rost, fired her after she wrote a letter to her colleagues announcing her intention to live as her “true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.” When asked in court to explain the reason for Ms. Stephens’ termination, Rost stated: “Because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.”
After the EEOC sued on Ms. Stephens’ behalf and lost in district court, despite claiming she was protected under Title VII, her case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit where the judges ruled in her favor. The funeral home, backed by the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, challenged the ruling, and the Supreme Court accepted the case in April 2019. Stephen passed away on May 12 and did not get to see the results of her seven year battle in court.
When evaluating these cases and their dependence on Title VII protections, the majority of justices took a textualist approach to decide on a final verdict; rather than considering the intentions of those who drafted and passed Title VII, they instead evaluated the objective meaning of the text. Many, including the Justice Department under the Trump administration, maintained that lawmakers did not intend to protect LGBTQ individuals in the 1964 statute; thus, they argued, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was permitted until Congress passed an entirely new law that explicitly prevented it.
Until yesterday’s ruling, people could be legally fired in 26 states for identifying as LGBTQ. In the 6-3 decision, conservative justices Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer. Gorsuch, notably a Trump appointee, wrote on the first page of the majority opinion: “The answer is clear. 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.”
Dissenting opinions came from conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito. Specifically, Alito criticized the majority for abandoning their judiciary responsibility to adjudicate laws, instead taking a legislative role. Additionally, he condemned what he saw as a loose reading of the Civil Rights Act, writing that “discrimination ‘because of sex’ was not understood as having anything to do with discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status [in 1964]. Any such notion would have clashed in spectacular fashion with the societal norms of the day.”
Religious conservatives attacked the ruling for what some saw as the degradation of religious freedoms. Rev. Franklin Graham, leader of the evangelical organization Samaritan’s Purse, said about the court’s decision: “I don’t know how this is going to protect us.” He explained in a Facebook post that, “The Supreme Court does not override and will never overturn the Word of God… Christian organizations should never be forced to hire people who do not align with their biblical beliefs and should not be prevented from terminating a person whose lifestyle and beliefs undermine the ministry’s purpose and goals.”
Gorsuch addressed concerns about religious freedom in his majority opinion write-up: “How these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too.” Gorsuch’s ambiguity introduces the possibility of a clash between religious freedoms and the new protections afforded to LGBTQ people under Title VII.
This monumental win for the LGBTQ community comes shortly after the Trump administration submitted a brief to the Supreme Court on Jun. 3 that would allow for discrimination against prospective gay parents who wish to adopt. The administration further undermined LGBTQ rights when the Department of Health and Human Services finalized a regulation on Jun. 12 that would erase civil rights protections in healthcare for transgender individuals. In 2019, the Trump administration also effectively barred transgender people from serving in the military, reversing Obama era regulations that allowed openly LGBTQ individuals to serve.
Celebrities reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision largely with joy, while still noting how much farther the country has to go. Among those who commented was Star Trek actor, author, and activist George Takei, who tweeted, “The LGBTQ civil rights movement began 51 years ago with the Stonewall Riots, led by trans POC heroes. Today we mark another milestone in our struggle for equality with a victory in the Supreme Court, extending Title VII nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQs. O happy day!”
Joining Takei in praise for the ruling, Jonathan Van Ness, star of Netflix’s popular series Queer Eye, posted on Instagram: “YAY!! We can’t be fired for being LGBTQ anywhere in this country BUT we still need to end discrimination in healthcare, housing & more.”
Allies of the LGBTQ community also expressed their excitement. Taylor Swift tweeted “YES!! Thank you to the Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor and all the advocates who have fought so hard for this! We still have a long way to go to reach equality, but this is a beautiful step forward.”
(Sources: Supreme Court, NYT, Washington Post, BBC, NBC, Mother Jones, Vox, CNN)