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LGBTQ Landmark Ruling: Gay and Transgender Employees Are Protected Under the Law

Attorney: Laurie E. Sherwood, Mary Watson Fisher | Published 6.15.20

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court handed a major victory to the LGBTQ community when it ruled that an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court decided Bostock v. Clayton County which involved three separate plaintiffs who claimed their employers discriminated against them. The first plaintiff, Mr. Bobstock, was a social worker employed by Clayton County, Georgia. The County fired him after learning he joined a gay softball league. Mr. Zarda, the second plaintiff, was a skydiving instructor. A client complained she was uncomfortable diving tandem with a male instructor. Mr. Zarda assured the client that he was “100 percent gay.” The skydiving company fired Mr. Zarda following this incident. The third plaintiff, Ms. Stephens, worked for a funeral home. She was fired when she announced her intent to identify as a woman and wear women’s clothing.

The employers and the Trump Administration argued that the scope of Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex was not broad enough to include protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They argued it was incumbent upon Congress to pass a new law that included protections for gay and transgender workers. The employees argued the plain meaning of “sex” within Title VII necessarily includes protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom President Trump appointed to the Supreme Court in 2017, wrote the decision for the majority which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagen. Justice Gorsuch wrote, “When an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily intentionally discriminates against that individual in part because of sex.” Justice Gorsuch went on to hold that “the plaintiff’s sex need not be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action.”

Today’s decision resolved a split in the federal appellate courts where the majority previously held that Title VII does not protect gay and transgender workers. Only two of the twelve federal circuit courts previously held that such workers were protected from discrimination.

Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, filed a dissenting opinion to today’s decision. Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate dissenting opinion.

It is important to note that many states, including California, have their own anti-discrimination laws that specifically prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In California, state law has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1993. In 2017, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing issued regulations that expanded anti-discrimination protections to workers based on their gender identity and expression.