Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a long-awaited, watershed decision confirming that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does protect against discrimination in employment based on gender identity and sexual orientation. It may be the most significant employment-related decision in more than 20 years. The decision addresses a connected trio of separate cases that were argued in the fall before the Court: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (on appeal from the 11th Circuit), Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda (on appeal from the 2d Circuit), and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC (on appeal from the 6th Circuit). For a little background, see our prior blog here.
With a 6-3 majority, the four “liberal” justices joined with two “conservative” justices to reach this momentous decision—in fact, Justice Gorsuch penned the decision. Clearly finding that the word “sex” in Title VII encompasses employment actions based on gender identity or sexual orientation, Justice Gorsuch admitted that the original legislators who drafted Title VII “might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result.” The focus on interpreting the text of the law, which was often championed by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, carried the day—leading to “new” protections that will enhance the rights of the LGBTQ worker community throughout the country, especially in numerous states and locales that do not otherwise provide such protection. The decision also ensures that the “paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married [to a same sex partner] on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act” (raised in 2017, by a panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Hively v. Ivy Tech. Community College) has drifted off into the sunset.
Simply put, the Supreme Court said, “Because discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII.”
For employers across the country, the uniformity created by this decision will impact millions of workers in states where there was no similar protection for such discrimination—which is more than 50 percent of the states. There is much to consider. For example, if an employer employs 15 or more employees and does not have a policy prohibiting gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, it is time for a handbook update…as the immediate first step, with a corresponding move to update and implement new workforce training. As important, employers should take this valuable opportunity to engage with all employees. Be mindful of, and creative in, bringing positive and productive communication and, where needed, change to the workplace—culture emanates from the top and cannot be overestimated as to its impact on the effectiveness and health of the workforce.
It is inevitable that there will be additional questions as this decision filters out into the workplace and the lower courts interpret it. Cases down the line will likely force the courts to address issues relating to the interplay of this decision with the exercise of religious freedom. Also, as the dissent from Justice Alito noted, the ruling could have unforeseen consequences, leaving courts to address its implications in athletics, bathroom and locker room access, university housing, and other contexts. Though undoubtedly putting to bed one of the most substantive issues in employment law in the 21st century so far, as with all significant decisions of the highest court, the ripple effects will engender further battles and be felt for decades to come.