What today’s historic Supreme Court ruling means for LGBTQ workers, and for employers

June 15, 2020, 6:04 PM UTC

The Supreme Court issued a momentous decision on Monday morning that makes it illegal for most employers to discriminate against gay or transgender workers.

The 6-3 decision means gay and trans workers will now be protected by the same federal law that forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, religion or race. The case is arguably bigger than the court’s 2015 decision allowing same-sex marriage since the scope of employment discrimination is so broad. Here’s what the decision means for workers, and employers.

What was the case all about?

The case known as Bostock v. County of Georgia was about a government worker named Gerald Bostock who was fired for joining a gay softball league. He argued that this was illegal based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex.

The Supreme Court heard his appeal along with those of Don Zarda, a skydiving instructor (now deceased) who lost his job after saying he was gay, and Aimee Stephens, who was fired from a funeral home for being transgender.

How did the Supreme Court make its decision?

It all came down to the phrase “because of sex” in the 1964 law. The employers in the case argued that Congress intended the phrase to refer to discrimination over gender—not sexual orientation.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, disagreed and said the words of the statute clearly cover gay and trans people, and it does not matter what lawmakers meant at the time.

Did the court split on liberal vs conservative lines?

Yes, but only in part. Justice Gorsuch is a conservative appointed by Trump and he wrote the opinion in favor of gay rights. The four liberals on the court joined his opinion and so did Chief Justice John Roberts who is also a conservative.

Three other conservatives—Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh—disagreed. The latter wrote a long dissent that accused Gorsuch of betraying the legacy of the late conservative legal hero, Justice Antonin Scalia.

What does this mean for gay workers and their employers?

It means that a company or government agency that discriminates against a worker for being gay can face the same legal penalties as they would in other cases of discrimination. Those penalties range from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the employer.

For gay or trans workers, it means they now have federal law on their side if they face discrimination. Until now, they were only protected by state laws in certain parts of the country—while some states offered no protections at all.

There is, however, one hole in the law: It applies only to employers with 15 or more workers. This means gay or trans workers at very small companies may have to turn to state laws or elsewhere for protection.

Did the Trump Administration take a side in the case?

Yes, the Department of Justice, in a reversal of the Obama Administration’s position, had filed a brief to say the Supreme Court should leave the decision about extending protections to gay workers to Congress. Today’s ruling, however, ends the debate.

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