In a somewhat surprising move, the conservative majority Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of gay and transgender workers during their interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In Monday’s 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents employment discrimination against individuals based on race, religion, national origin and sex, also applies to gay and transgender workers. For example, at least two teachers at religious schools in Washington were terminated from their employment after their sexual preference was revealed. Under the new interpretation, such a move by the employer would be illegal.
The ruling caused shockwaves in some conservative circles, especially because the Supreme Court has a conservative majority. Moreover, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, whom many conservatives hailed as a leader for his holdings on abortion, was the justice who penned the majority decision. In his opinion, Justice Gorsuch alluded to other religious freedom protections, including the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, before stating that firing an employee for being gay or transgender would be considered illegal.
“In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee,” Justice Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
He went on to say:
“Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit. 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.” And thus, he concluded, the employer is in violation of the Civil Rights Act and the law.
Justice Samuel Alito, who penned the dissent, threw out a highly specific hypothetical in justification of his dissent.
“For women who have been victimized by sexual assault or abuse, the experience of seeing an unclothed person with the anatomy of a male in a confined and sensitive location such as a bathroom or locker room can cause serious psychological harm.”
While that’s not to say that this specific hypothetical is not without some semblance of merit, it doesn’t come close to reaching the threshold of being able to fire an individual simply because of their sexual preference.
While this is a step in the right direction, don’t expect the battle over transgender and gay rights in the workplace to end here. This ruling will send ripple effects through some businesses and groups who aren’t going to be keen on changing their ways.