WASHINGTON — In a landmark victory for LGBTQ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court held Monday that employers can’t legally fire people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
In a 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that employers who fire individuals “merely for being gay or transgender” violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex and other characteristics — but not specifically gender identity or sexual orientation.
Justices heard cases last fall involving plaintiffs who argued that they were wrongfully fired because of their gender orientation and sexual identity.
Aimee Stephens — a transgender woman from Michigan — was fired after she informed her boss she planned to transition from male to female. She died last month, but her wife, Donna Stephens, remembered her Monday.
“My wife, Aimee, was my soulmate,” she said. “We were married for 20 years. For the last seven years of Aimee’s life, she rose as a leader who fought against discrimination against transgender people, starting when she was fired for coming out as a woman, despite her recent promotion at the time. I am grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first appointee to the high court, and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices in the case. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh filed dissenting opinions.
“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,” wrote Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The ruling will have a profound effect on millions of LGBTQ people and their families. Almost 5% of U.S. adults — more than 11 million people — identify as LGBTQ, according to Reuters, and large percentages report workplace discrimination. More than 40 percent of lesbian, bisexual and gay people — and 90 percent of transgender people — have faced employment discrimination based on their sexual orientation, according to court documents.
President Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, hailed the “historic” decision Monday. “No one should be denied a job or fired simply because of who they are or whom they love,” he said in a statement.
But he said more work remains. The high court legalized gay marriage in 2015, but about half of states lack statutes protecting LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination, including Michigan. The GOP-led Legislature has not taken action to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include LGBTQs, despite support from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General, both Democrats.
“Today, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court confirmed what we already know – that nobody deserves to lose their job because of who they are or how they identify,” said Whitmer. “This is good news for the countless LGBTQ+ Michiganders who have been fighting for equality for decades, and would not have been possible if not for one of the plaintiffs, Aimee Stephens, a brave Michigander who fought for transgender rights until the day she died.”
Whitmer added that “there is still more work to do” and said the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act must be expanded.
LGBTQ activists hoping to get a measure on the 2020 ballot doing so hit a roadblock with the COVID-19 crisis and were unable to gather enough signatures. A judge last week gave Fair and Equal Michigan more time to collect signatures for the LGBTQ rights initiative, but it won’t go before voters until 2022.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed to the Equality Act legislation passed last year by the U.S. House that would amend existing civil rights law to explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender identity and make other changes. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “must end his partisan obstruction and allow the Senate to vote on this critical legislation,” she said in a statement.
Jay Kaplan, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan LGBT Project staff attorney, said the Supreme Court ruling “moves our country forward and affirms legal protections in the workplace, housing and health care – but, as Aimee Stephens always advocated for, we still have work to do. We call on Congress to affirm this decision by passing the Equality Act, and in Michigan, we call on our state legislature to amend Michigan’s civil rights laws, including the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, to explicitly protect LGBTQ people from all discrimination.”
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said the Equality Act must be passed.
“This is a historic day for LGBTQ+ rights and equality in this country. Nobody should face discrimination in the workplace or fear losing their job for who they are or who they love,” he said. “Michigander Aimee Stephens did not live to see this day, but today we honor her and carry on this fight in her memory. While this is a major step forward we have a lot of work to do, including passing the Equality Act.”
Other plaintiffs were Gerald Bostock of Georgia and Donald Zarda of New York, who were fired after their employers learned of the sexual orientation. Bostock, a social worker, lost his job with Clayton County after joining a gay softball league. Zarda, a skydiving instructor, was fired after informing a customer of his sexual orientation.