LGBTQ Individuals Protected from Employment Discrimination under Title VII

By Alexandra D. Thaler

In a decision issued on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or transgender status.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to “discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…”  Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the 6-3 majority in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonya Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, summarized the issue and the Court’s holding by stating:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. 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. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.

Later in the opinion, which is noteworthy for its singular focus on textual analysis, Justice Gorsuch explained:

Title VII’s message is “simple but momentous”: An individual employee’s sex is “not relevant to the selection, evaluation, or compensation of employees.”… The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.

This decision is a momentous one in the history of LGBTQ rights in the U.S., as it confirms that federal law protects homosexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in employment decisions such as hiring, termination, discipline, and promotion, and in compensation and other terms and conditions of employment.  While many state and local laws already identify sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as protected categories, the Bostock case will have significant impact in jurisdictions that do not specifically reference these categories separately from sex.  Moreover, while Bostock deals specifically with Title VII, similar language appears in numerous other federal and state statutes, meaning that this opinion could lead to findings that similar protections exist in many other spheres, such as healthcare, education, housing and more.  It calls into question recent changes in federal policy, such as the decision made by HHS last week, stripping LGBTQ (and other) non-discrimination protections from Obamacare.  The full implications of this decision will be playing out for years to come.