The Supreme Court decided Monday that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encompasses bias against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers.
The decision is a major victory for sexual and gender minorities facing workplace discrimination on the basis of their identities, legal experts said.
“It’s a hugely important decision,” said Deborah Widiss, a professor of employment discrimination, family law and legislation at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. “It makes clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees are protected under our employment laws. That will make an enormous difference for a lot of people.”
Widiss says the ruling means that “it should feel much safer for someone to come out at work, to be comfortable bringing a same-sex spouse to a company picnic, if someone's interested in transitioning sex or has already transitioned sex to be open about that in the workplace — hopefully without fear that they would be fired and knowing that if they were (fired), or if they were otherwise penalized, that would be illegal.
“I think there's a lot of employees who’ve felt they had to hide key parts of their identity because it wasn't clear that it was protected. And now it is.”
In its ruling, the court decided that a key provision of the Civil Rights Act known as Title VII, which bars job discrimination because of sex, encompasses LGBTQ workers.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
Gorsuch and fellow conservative justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberal justices in the 6-to-3 vote. Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Monday’s ruling resolves cases involving a transgender woman and gay men who sued for employment discrimination after they lost their jobs.
Aimee Stephens lost her job as a funeral director in the Detroit area after she revealed to her boss that she would soon begin dressing in line with her gender identity. She died last month. Another case involved a skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda. He was fired after telling a woman with whom he was jumping that he was gay. Zarda died in 2014.
There are an estimated 8.1 million LGBTQ workers in the United States. Most states including Indiana don’t have laws protecting them against workplace discrimination.
Impact On Indianapolis Catholic School Cases Unclear
The Supreme Court decision doesn’t apply to every workplace, and it won’t necessarily resolve ongoing LGBTQ discrimination cases in Indiana.
Last year, two former school guidance counselors filed complaints against the Roncalli High School as well as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Shelly Fitzgerald was placed on paid administrative and later fired after her marriage to a woman became public. Lynn Starkey, who is a lesbian, was also fired last May. Later that year, social worker Kelly Fisher alleged she was fired for supporting the two counselors.
According to Widiss, the IU law professor, “there are some special rules that apply to religious employers, including religious schools. Religious organizations can discriminate on grounds that would otherwise be illegal—like sex, or now sexual orientation—when making decisions about employees that serve ‘ministerial’ roles. This is why, for example, the Catholic church can refuse to hire women as priests. The question therefore is whether a guidance counselor, like Roncalli, serves a ‘ministerial’ role.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two other cases that go to that question.
Additionally, Widiss pointed to a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which could be cited to defend religious institutions and individuals in the future. Monday’s ruling said the act “might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”
“So, in short, it’s still not clear how a case like Roncalli would be resolved,” Widiss says.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.