LGBT Workers Win Job Protections in Landmark Supreme Court Ruling

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 15, 2020

Employers that fire an individual merely for being gay or transgender violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 today. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, "An individual's homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions."

The Court's decision in Bostock v. Clayton County involved a pair of employers that fired male employees shortly after learning of their sexual orientation, as well as a third case involving a funeral home director, Aimee Stephens, who lost her job after revealing her intention to have sex-reassignment surgery.

The ruling is significant because only 21 states have laws providing job protections for LGBT employees. The outcome surprised some observers with Justice Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, authoring the opinion and Chief Justice John Roberts also joining the majority. The Court did not reveal its hand during last fall's oral arguments, and several justices appeared concerned about the consequences of ruling for the employees.

In its ruling, the majority noted that Title VII bans discrimination because of sex. Justice Gorsuch explained that if an employer fires a male employee for no other reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits it tolerates in his female colleague. And in doing so, he continued, "the individual employee's sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision."

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito called this ruling, "legislation." He explained, "Many will applaud today's decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court's updating of Title VII." However, he said Congress never took such a step.

"In 1964, ordinary Americans reading the text of Title VII would not have dreamed that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination because of sexual orientation, much less gender identity."