What to Know About the Supreme Court’s LGBTQ Discrimination Decision


It was a triumphant moment for LGBTQ rights following the decision to protect gay and transgender employees. In a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 15, 2020, it was decreed that employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation was prohibited under federal civil rights law.

In a 6-3 ruling, the decision delivered an emotional victory for LGBTQ advocates and a swift defeat for the Trump administration, which had sided with employers in three previous cases before the court. The Supreme Court’s discrimination decision represents the most significant milestone for LGBTQ rights in the United States since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015.

Arguments Over the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Lawyers representing employers argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not apply to discrimination cases involving gender identity or sexual orientation. The Trump administration sided with this argument. However, in a shocking turn of events it was President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who formed a majority alongside four other members of the court.

In statement made to the court, Gorsuch wrote, “An employer who fired 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.”
“Today,” Gorsuch stated, “we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear.”

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, religion, and race. However, until this recent decision by the Supreme Court it was legal in more than half of the states to fire employees for being gay, bisexual, or transgender. Up until the June 15th ruling, 28 U.S. states still lacked appropriate measures against LGBTQ employment discrimination.

The legal battle focused on the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s definition of “sex.” The Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs that discrimination against gay and transgender employees was inherently based on their sex and was thus illegal. In making their decision, the court addressed three separate cases, two involving gay men and one involving a transgender woman, all whom were fired from their jobs and who sued their employers for alleged discrimination.

“It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating based on sex,” Gorsuch wrote. “If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact that he is attracted to men, but not the woman who is attracted to men, that is clearly a firing based on sex.”
Many have stepped forward to express their gratitude following the Supreme Court decision. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “a victory for the LGBTQ community, for our democracy and for our fundamental values of equality and justice for all.”

President and CEO of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis, said, “The decision gives us hope that as a country we can unite for the common good and continue the fight for LGBTQ acceptance.”

Dissenting Opinions on the Ruling

With praise also comes backlash from certain parties unsatisfied with the court’s ruling. The Trump administration had urged the Supreme Court to rule that Title VII does not cover LGBTQ-based employee discrimination cases, even though this is the opposite stance previously taking by the Obama administration.

The Justice Department also disagreed with the verdict, stating, “The ordinary meaning of ‘sex’ is biologically male or female; it does not include sexual orientation. It added, “An employer who discriminates against employees in same-sex relationships thus does not violate Title VII as long as it treats men in same-sex relationships the same as women in same-sex relationships.”

In early June, the Trump administration issued a rule that lifted anti-discrimination protections for transgender individuals in the healthcare industry. The administration also backed certain businesses that refused to serve gay people due to religious beliefs and banned transgender service members from the military. Protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools were also rescinded.

Despite these prior rulings from the Trump administration, President Donald Trump called the decision “very powerful” at a White House roundtable on senior citizen issues. “They’ve ruled and we live with their decision. That’s what it’s all about, we live with the decision of the Supreme Court,” he said.

How the Supreme Court Ruling Affects State’s LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination Laws

Today, the LGBTQ community is made up of more than 1 million employees who identify as transgender, and in additional 7.1 million who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute. Numerous LGBTQ groups celebrated the court’s ruling, including the Human Rights Campaign, which soon after tweeted that the decision by the Supreme Court was a “landmark victory for #LGBTQ equality.”

With the court’s new ruling, states across the nation will need to comply. Before the ruling, the states that didn’t provide statutory protection included Texas and many states in the Midwest and South. States along the West Coast and Northeast, such as New York and California, already had certain state laws in place that provide protection. Utah and Wisconsin lacked explicit protections from discrimination based on gender identity.

Currently, employees in states that did not previously provide statutory protection for this type of workplace discrimination are protected by federal law and will face legal recourse if the law is broken. Those residing in states that already had certain protections in place will now have additional recourse available through the federal court.

However, there are still certain areas of the new ruling that are unclear. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination by employers who have 15 or more employees. This means that a small business that has fewer than 15 employees may still have the right to fire a person based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, with the exception of those in cities or counties that legally prohibit such types of discrimination.

Moving Forward

While LGBTQ advocates acknowledge the hurdles in front of them, optimism still remains that LGBTQ workers will no longer face discrimination from large employers like hospitals, universities, and corporations.
By the Supreme Court ruling against LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, the idea that every human should be treated with dignity and respect is confirmed.

Workplace Discrimination in Arizona

If you think you are a victim of workplace discrimination in the state of Arizona, contact the employment law team at JacksonWhite, led by award-winning attorneys Mike Pruitt and Nate Hill.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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