In a landmark ruling issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that employers, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are barred from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who authored the opinion, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court’s liberal justices in a 6 to 3 ruling.
The decision covers three combined lawsuits. Two of the lawsuits concerned gay men who were fired because of their sexual orientation. The third was brought by a transgender woman who was fired when she announced that she planned to express her gender identity at work. The employers did not dispute that the employees were terminated for those reasons.
Title VII bars employment discrimination based on a person’s sex, as well as race, color, religion and national origin. The crux of the decision centered on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was “because of sex.” Lawyers for both the employers and the Trump administration argued that it was not. They maintained that to extend such protections, Congress would need to pass additional legislation to cover gay and transgender workers.
The Court, however, strongly disagreed. “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear,” Justice Gorsuch explained. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
This decision has far-reaching implications for employers. Title VII applies to all employers with fifteen employees or more, although there are certain exceptions (e.g., religious employers). Many states, including Iowa, have already extended discrimination protections to gay and transgender workers in the private and public sectors. Many localities, including Omaha, Nebraska, have ordinances doing the same. The Court’s ruling is significant because it means that millions of gay and transgender employees in the U.S. will now be protected under federal law. Covered employers cannot take adverse action against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Prior to this decision, some federal courts had concluded that Title VII excluded sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and employees faced an uphill battle in bringing these claims. From this point on, such employees will not. Employers must ensure that they implement the same practices and policies that comply with other Title VII protections to gay and transgender workers.
McGrath North’s labor and employment attorneys are available to answer questions and assist with updating your current policies to ensure compliance with the Court’s ruling.