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, author of 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.
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 written 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed.
She 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 written statement.
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.
“BIG BIG NEWS!! This is a huge WIN for LGBTQ workers who have long argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects them from workplace discrimination!” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an out gay lawmaker from Orlando, said on his Twitter feed.
Florida Democratic chair Terrie Rizzo issued a written statement of her own.
“While today’s victory gets us one step closer to a country where everyone can live openly, freely, and authentically, we know we have much more work to do to ensure a truly equitable United States,” she said.
“For decades, Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to pass the Competitive Workplace Act and protect LGBTQ people not only in the workplace, but also in the public space and housing realms. Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has fought to deny these protections and, just last week, the Trump administration stripped Obama-era transgender health care protections. The Florida Democratic Party is dedicated to electing Joe Biden, who is committed to championing equal rights for all Americans. To the activists who have worked decades for these protections, congratulations and Happy Pride!”
“Our community just took another step towards equality. This landmark decision makes clear that employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans is illegal. It means working with dignity and without fear of being fired for who you are,” said Stephen Gaskill, president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus via Twitter.
John Tonnison, president of Florida Competes, a business-backed coalition that favors legislation to protect LGBTQ workers, also praised the ruling. He noted that 31 cities and 12 counties in the state have “commonsense” human rights ordinances on their books.
“In fact, recent polling by PRRI shows 68 percent of Floridians support these bipartisan, pro-business, anti-discrimination measures, which will ensure Florida remains competitive in the global marketplace. This is why we need our state leaders and Congress to finish the job and protect the LGBT community in all areas of life, including public housing and accommodations, and employment. We call on the Florida Legislature to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act and demonstrate that Florida is truly open for business to all,” he said.
Florida Phoenix Deputy Editor Michael Moline contributed to this story.