Supreme Court Rules LGBTQ Employees Protected by Federal Employment Discrimination Laws

Supermajority Education Fund

June 15, 2020

Today, in a landmark 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws protect LGBTQ+ employees. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, typically a conservative justice, wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh dissented.

Charlie Arrowood, Principal Attorney at Arrowood Law, told Supermajority News that this decision confirms what LGBTQ+ allies and advocates have already known. 

“The Supreme Court has recognized what we have been saying all along—that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex and is prohibited under federal law,” they said in an email. 

In October 2019, the court heard several arguments as to why LGBTQ+ individuals should be legally protected from being fired because of their sexuality. The cases concerned Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. The court’s task was to decide whether this law — and its definition of “sex” — applied to gay and transgender employees. 

The court considered two separate cases: One was a pair of arguments from gay men who claimed they were fired because of their sexual orientation and the other was from Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman said she was fired from her job as a funeral home director in Michigan because of her gender identity. The owner of R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Thomas Rost, fired Stephens after she wrote a letter to her colleagues explaining that she would be living and working as a woman. 

“What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster,” Stephens’ letter to her colleagues read. “I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness. I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire. I hope we can continue my work at R. G. and G. R. Harris Funeral Homes doing what I always have, which is my best!”  

“Aimee showed great courage in bringing this case and sharing her story, even though it was often painful for her to be in the spotlight,” Shannon Minter, National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director, told Supermajority News in May. “One way activists can honor Aimee’s memory is to follow her example by sharing our own stories and the realities of our lives, including the many ways we are harmed by discrimination. Another is to join the fight to pass state and federal laws protecting transgender people from discrimination.”

This case is only a small win along the way of progress for LGBTQ+ employees in the U.S. For example, in January 2019, the Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to ban transgender people serving in the military, which reversed a 2016 decision by the Obama administration. 

What’s more, “Black LGBTQ people, and particularly Black trans people, continue to face systemic discrimination and white supremacist violence,” Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) executive director Eliza Byard said in a statement to Supermajority News. “We continue to urge Congress and the President to pass the Equality Act that will provide clear, consistent, and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people—especially Black and indigenous LGBTQ people who are particularly vulnerable—in all aspects of their lives. Protecting Black and indigenous LGBTQ people from discrimination, and making their legal rights a lived reality, is essential to building a safer, better future for us all. We all must keep our shoulders to the wheel.”