In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there is now nationwide protection for LGBTQ employees under federal law. Importantly, individuals living in states without statewide LGBTQ protections, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, are now protected against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII covers any employer in the United States that employs more than fifteen employees.
Supreme Court Case Prompted by Past Discrimination Against LGBTQ Individuals
On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, that Title VII protects LGBTQ individuals against discrimination by their employers. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The three dissenters were Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh.
The Supreme Court’s opinion was the result of three separate cases that involved employees being fired because of their LGBTQ status. The named plaintiff, Gerald Bostock, was fired by Clayton County, Georgia, for “unbecoming” conduct shortly after he participated in a gay recreational softball league. Another Bostock plaintiff, Donald Zarda, was a skydive instructor who revealed he was gay to a client. The client eventually told the employer that Zarda was gay, and the employer fired him shortly thereafter. The final Bostock plaintiff, Aimee Stephens, presented as a male when she began working at a funeral home. She told her employer that she was going to begin living as a woman once she returned from vacation; however, her employer fired her before she returned from vacation. The employer told her that “this is not going to work out.” Each of these plaintiffs sued in federal court claiming sex discrimination under the federal anti-discrimination law, Title VII. Three lower appellate courts ruled differently on whether these firings, all because of LGBTQ discrimination, were prohibited under Title VII’s protections.
The Implications of Title VII Protections for LGBTQ Employees
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer with 15 or more employees to refuse to hire, fire, or discriminate against any individual because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. At issue in the three cases combined into Bostock was whether Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on “sex” protected LGBTQ individuals. Two of the lower appellate courts interpreted “sex” in Title VII to include sexual orientation and gender identity protection, but the other held that “sex” is limited to whether someone is male or female. The Supreme Court thus agreed to hear the Bostock case in order to resolve that split among the lower courts and clarify the protection under federal law going forward.
In resolving the lower courts’ disagreements, the Supreme Court in Bostock recognized that when Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act, it might not have anticipated the passage of the law would lead to such broad protections. However, the Supreme Court noted the Title VII drafters probably had not thought of many of the Act’s protections that have arisen from it over the years, including its banning of sexual harassment.
The Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s plain language mandates that it cover LGBTQ discrimination. The Court wrote: “[D]iscrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII.”
Employment Discrimination Attorneys Who Will Protect Your Rights
Now, given Bostock, it is clear that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from being discriminated against because of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Title VII is broad, and covers every state. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community and your employer discriminates against you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, contact Schaefer Halleen’s workplace discrimination attorneys to defend your rights.