Supreme Court says federal law protects L.G.B.T. workers from discrimination

In this 2015 file photo, L.G.B.T. supporters wave a flag outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The court ruled June 15, 2020, that federal anti-discrimination laws protect gay and transgender employees from discrimination. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) 

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a 6-3 vote June 15, the Supreme Court said LGBT people are protected from job discrimination by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"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," said Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the opinion in the case argued at the start of the court's term last October.

He pointed out that when Congress enacted Title VII, it might not have expected "this particular result." But he also said Congress likely didn't see many interpretations of the federal law coming, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees.

"Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit," Gorsuch wrote.

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

Dissenting votes were from Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

The decision was for two consolidated cases about fired gay employees and a separate case concerning a fired transgender worker who had sued for employment discrimination after being fired.

At issue in this case is the wording in the Civil Rights Act, which prevents employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex. The court had to determine if discrimination that was not allowed based on sex applied to sexual orientation as well as gender identity.

Federal appeals courts have been divided on this application of the law for the past three years since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit became the first to rule that homosexuals should be protected from job discrimination by the civil rights law.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

"Sex means whether you're male or female, not whether you're gay or straight," argued Solicitor General Noel Francisco for the Trump administration on the side of the employers during oral arguments.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the issue of people being fired for their sexual identity had to be examined, noting: "We can't deny that homosexuals are being fired merely for being who they are."

Alito, joined by Thomas, wrote more than 100 pages in the dissent and said the court's majority seemed to be writing legislation, not law, in this decision.

"The question in these cases is not whether discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity should be outlawed," Alito said. "The question is whether Congress did that in 1964," and he said it "indisputably did not."

Kavanaugh, in a separate dissent, said the court was attempting to "rewrite ordinary meaning and remake American law," acting more like members of Congress than judges.

The decision, hailed by supporters, was questioned by its opponents who wondered how it would hold up in religious liberty cases. The opinion itself mentions this saying: "How these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases."

It also notes that "other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration, none of the employers before us today represent in this court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way."

A number of religious groups including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the employers in this case. The USCCB brief said the added employee protection could impact faith-based schools, health care providers and homeless shelters that operate by "religious and moral convictions."

Dozens of companies and advocacy groups filed briefs in support of the employees.

In a statement released Monday, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S.C.C.B., criticized the court's "redefinition" of sex under U.S. law. "Every human person is made in the image and likeness of God and, without exception, must be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect. Protecting our neighbors from unjust discrimination does not require redefining human nature," reads the statement. The U.S. bishops also added that sex is "part of God's plan" and that "[n]o one can find true happiness by pursuing a path that is contrary to God’s plan." 

Currently, more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place to protect against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity with exceptions for religious employers.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm, told reporters before the Supreme Court's term began that if the court views these employee cases as discrimination, there will likely be new lawsuits and "massive liabilities with churches, schools and religious organizations" that expect their employees to follow certain standards.

He said there are exceptions for those in ministerial roles with a religious function. But no matter how these exemptions are interpreted, there is likely to be a lot of confusion, he said.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal group, which supports religious freedom and other issues, said in a June 15 statement: "Americans must be able to rely on what the law says, and it is disappointing that a majority of the justices were unwilling to affirm that commonsense principle. Redefining sex to mean gender identity will create chaos and enormous unfairness for women and girls in athletics, women's shelters and many other contexts."

New Ways Ministry, which advocates for L.G.B.T. Catholics, supported the court's decision as a step in the right direction. "While pro-LGBTQ Catholics, who are the overwhelming majority in the U.S. church, will obviously applaud this decision, even Catholics who take a negative stance toward LGBTQ people should welcome this decision because it is absolutely in agreement with Catholic teachings about the human dignity of LGBTQ people, anti-discrimination, and respect for workers’ rights," said the group Monday via a press statement. The organization added a note of caution regarding the decision, writing that this new law may not protect L.G.B.T. employees in church institutions from workplace discrimination. 

"[I]t is sad that the Supreme Court is ahead of the Catholic Church when it comes to employment non-discrimination—a policy which should Catholic teaching speaks of eloquently in its words, but fails miserably in putting into practice," reads the statement. 

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

The latest from america

Wilton Gregory said he hopes Pope Francis will find him to be “supportive, encouraging and trustworthy” in his role as a cardinal, but his primary ministry is still to be the archbishop of Washington.
Join America Media as we prepare for the coming of our Lord with special daily Advent reflections on The Word podcast.
America StaffNovember 27, 2020
St. Francis’ poverty was not cold and brutal but actually, in a way, worldly. It was a poverty that anyone today searching for what is real and authentic might relate to.
Jason M. BaxterNovember 27, 2020
The image displays five photos of the five members of the prayer service's organizing committee: Moira Egan, a white woman in her 50s with dark hair (top left); Kathleen Friel, a white woman with short hair wearing glasses (top middle); Ricardo da Silva, S.J., a white man who is bald with a brown beard, wearing glasses (top right); Father John Mulreany, S.J., wearing clerical carb that is black, and glasses (bottom left); Allison Connelly, white woman, light brown hair and glasses (bottom right)
An New York City parish organized a fully accessible prayer service for people with disabilities, who even in the church are often forgotten on the margins.
Erika RasmussenNovember 27, 2020