The Supreme Court delivered a momentous ruling in favor of LGBT rights on Monday, deciding that gay, lesbian and transgender workers are protected by federal anti-discrimination law.
The 6-3 decision means that LGBT employees cannot be fired for their sexual orientation, a possibility that still exists in many states even in the five years since same-sex marriage was ruled legal.
The justices decided that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis on sex, also applies to sexual orientation.
The case involved two plaintiffs who were fired by their employers after revealing that they were gay, and a transgender individual who was terminated from her job after revealing her gender identity to her boss.
The Trump administration justice department had urged the court not to conclude that Title VII extends to LGBT Americans. But Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by Trump, wrote in the majority opinion that “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.”
Gorsuch was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative justice, along with justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
“In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Gerald Bostock, one of the plaintiffs in the case, sued after he was fired from his job with Clayton County, GA, after he joined a gay softball league. Another plaintiff, Donald Zarda, was terminated from his job as a skydiving instructor in New York after he revealed his sexual orientation. He died in 2014, but his family continued to pursue the case. Another plaintiff, Aimee Stephens, was let go from her job at a Michigan funeral home after she told her employer that she planned to live and work as a woman. She died last month of kidney failure.
The ACLU, which represented Zarda and Stephens, said in a statement, “This landmark victory is the work of decades of LGBTQ people — led by Black trans women — fighting for our community. It belongs to our clients Aimee, Don, and another plaintiff Gerald Bostock, and countless other individuals who spoke out when they experienced discrimination.”
In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “many will applaud today’s decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court’s updating of Title VII. 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.”
Alito took issue with Gorsuch’s argument that the court was in line with late Justice Antonin Scalia’s embrace of “textualism,” or that laws should be interpreted by the plain meaning of their words.
Alito wrote that “no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated––the theory that courts should ‘update’ old statutes so that they better reflect the current values of society.”
On MSNBC, Katy Tur asked Bostock whether he was surprised by the ruling.
“I don’t know that I would say surprised,” he said. “I think maybe a little shocked, and probably more so that it was a full win across the board, which tells me that that was a very clear message that the United States Supreme Court sent out. And in this — this time of uncertainty and certainly some dark days with the civil unrest going on around us, my hope is that this — this brings a little bit of sunshine to these dark days, because what it tells me is there is hope.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s president and CEO, said, “The decision gives us hope that as a country we can unite for the common good and continue the fight for LGBTQ acceptance. Especially at a time when the Trump Administration is rolling back the rights of transgender people and anti-transgender violence continues to plague our nation, this decision is a step towards affirming the dignity of transgender people, and all LGBTQ people.”
SAG-AFTRA issued this statement late Monday: “This is one of the most significant decisions about employment law in many years and a long overdue blow to state-sanctioned discriminatio. Firing someone for being LGBTQ is now illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Prior to today’s landmark ruling, close to 30 states offered no protection whatsoever and LGBTQ people could (and did) get fired for absolutely no reason.”
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