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.
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. Nearly 5 percent 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.
André Wade, the Nevada state director of the LGBTQ+ civil rights organization Silver State Equality, called the decision the most consequential cases for the LGBTQ community since the Obergefell ruling, which affirmed marriage equality.
“Despite this important victory in our ongoing fight for equality, we must remain vigilant. Our work is not over,” Wade said. “We must pass the Equality Act, which has been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for over a year, to ensure LGBTQ+ people are protected from discrimination in every aspect of life. And we must continue to stand strong in the fight for racial justice and our fight to ensure every American has access to quality, affordable healthcare. Today, we celebrate this important milestone. Tomorrow, the work continues.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed.
She also pointed to 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. 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.
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said the decision affirms that “no one should be denied dignity in the workplace because of who they are or who they love” but also echoed Wade’s calling for more work to be done.
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.
Gerald Bostock of Georgia and Donald Zarda of New York 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.
The decision comes a few days after the Trump administration finalized a rule to remove protections for LGBTQ people for health care and health insurance.
“Even as the Trump Administration undermines health care protections for our transgender loved ones, we have secured this victory for the LGBTQ+ community, for our democracy and for inherent American values of equality and justice,” U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford wrote in a statement.