On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Supreme Court Opinion can be found here.
There were three cases before the Supreme Court. The initial lawsuits filed were from gay men who claim they were fired because of their sexual orientation: Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, No. 17-1623.
The first case was filed by Gerald Bostock, who was fired from a government program that helped neglected and abused children in Clayton County, Georgia, after he joined a gay softball league.
The second was brought by a skydiving instructor, Donald Zarda, who also claimed he was fired because he was gay. His dismissal followed a complaint from a female customer who had expressed concerns about being strapped to Mr. Zarda during a tandem dive. Mr. Zarda, hoping to reassure the customer, disclosed to her that he was gay.
The gender identity case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107, was brought by a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, who was fired from a Michigan funeral home after she announced in 2013 that she was a transgender woman and would start working in women’s clothing.
Mr. Zarda died in 2014, and Ms. Stephens died on May 12, 2020. Their estates continued to pursue their cases after their deaths.
Generally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and job applicants against discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin and sex. Title VII applies to employers in both the private and public sectors that have fifteen (15) or more employees.
The issue that confronted the Supreme Court was whether discrimination based on sex should be understood to include sexual orientation and gender identity under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The justices decided that individuals who identify as gay or transgender are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.
The landmark 6-3 ruling represented the biggest moment for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in the Opinion 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.”
The decision will allow people who claim they were discriminated against in the workplace based on their sexual orientation or gender identity to file lawsuits, just as people claiming race and religion discrimination may. The plaintiffs will have to offer evidence, of course, and employers may respond that they had reasons unrelated to discrimination for their decisions.
It is important to note that the ruling does not help when it comes to discrimination against people in public accommodations, where discrimination based on sex is not barred by federal law. Thirty-one states currently do not prohibit discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The attorneys at Reno & Zahm LLP continue to monitor legislation relevant to employers and we will endeavor to provide regular updates when warranted. Please contact us with any questions. We are here to help you make it through these challenging times.