LGBTQ advocates rejoiced Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unexpectedly broad ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — specifically, Title VII of the act, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex — bars employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Chase Strangio, deputy director of Trans Justice at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, called the ruling “a truly important rebuke” of conservative efforts to roll back LGBTQ legal protections established during the Obama administration.
“This is a major blow to the interpretation that anti-trans forces are looking to advance,” Strangio said. “You kind of forget that positive, good things can happen sometimes.”
The court said Title VII also covers sexual orientation and transgender status, upholding lower court rulings that said sexual orientation discrimination was a form of sex discrimination. The decision was written Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four more liberal members to form a 6-3 majority.
Of the three plaintiffs whose cases led to Monday’s landmark ruling, only one survives: Gerald Bostock, the Georgia state employee who was fired after it was discovered that he joined a gay softball league.
“Today, we can go to work without the fear of being fired for who we are and who we love,” Bostock said in a statement. “Yet, there is more work to be done. Discrimination has no place in this world, and I will not rest until we have equal rights for all.”
Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman who sued after she was fired from her job at a Michigan funeral home, died last month of kidney disease. Donald Zarda, a New York skydiving instructor who was fired in 2010 after telling a tandem dive customer that he was gay, died in a BASE-jumping accident in 2014.
“There are no words to describe what I’m feeling at this present moment,” Donna Stephens, Aimee’s widow, said.
“I know that the last seven years of Aimee’s life, she rose as a leader who fought against discrimination against transgender people,” she said. “I am so grateful for this victory, to honor the legacy of Aimee.”
Melissa Zarda, Donald’s sister, said the ruling was “the very best way to honor my brother’s memory and legacy,” saying that he sued because he “wanted to ensure nobody else went through what he did.”
“Millions of LGBTQ Americans still live in fear of losing their job because of who they are or who they love, so this decision is welcome news,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., who is gay. “The Supreme Court confirmed that there must be equal justice under the law for LGBTQ Americans in the workplace. This decision gives our community dignity and legal recourse should our civil rights be violated.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Monday’s decision “a momentous step forward for our country.”
“Before today, in more than half of states, LGBTQ+ people could get married one day and be fired from their job the next day under state law, simply because of who they are or who they love,” Biden said, vowing to sign the Equality Act into law if elected president.
The Williams Institute, an LGBTQ research center at UCLA Law School, estimated that the ruling protects an estimated 8.1 million working-age LGBTQ people in the United States: 7.1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people, and 1 million transgender people.
Of those people, 3.4 million lesbian, gay and bisexual workers and over a half million transgender workers gain immediate new protections from Monday’s ruling because they live in one of the 27 states without any pre-existing LGBTQ workplace discriminations.
“The ruling ensures a blanket of employment protections for LGBTQ people rather than the inadequate patchwork that has all but stopped at the borders of Southern states,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said of the estimated 5 million LGBTQ people living in the South. “For LGBTQ Southerners, the decision shows yet again that that no one should face discrimination because of who they are or who they love.”
Some advocates, however, warned that there was still work to be done, and that while Monday’s Title VII ruling establishes a reading of sex discrimination that will significantly expand the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, more legislation is still needed.
“I think the Bostock ruling will eventually control the definition of sex in every federal civil rights bill or law that includes sex, but the challenge here is that there are some contexts where there are gaps in federal law, and we need to fill those gaps,” James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said.
He added that the Equality Act — which would explicitly add sexual orientation and gender identity to a variety of pre-existing civil rights laws — “would fill that gap” by barring discrimination in public accommodations, jury duty and some other areas left out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even as the Bostock decision signals the end of the legal argument that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination does not bar discrimination against LGBTQ people, Esseks said there is already a new anti-LGBTQ legal argument making its way through lower courts.
“I think the next tactic by opponents of LGBTQ equality is to claim that religious freedom gives them a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people,” Esseks said. “And that is an endeavor that is already well underway.”