The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status, a major victory for advocates of gay rights — and a surprising one from an increasingly conservative court.
In decisions on two separate cases, the court said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate because of a person's sex, among other factors, also covers sexual orientation and transgender status. It upheld rulings from lower courts that said discrimination based on those factors was a form of sex discrimination.
Across the nation, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven more provide that protection only to public employees. Those laws remain in force, but Monday's ruling means federal law now provides similar protection for LGBT employees in the rest of the country.
Gay rights groups considered the issue a highly significant one, even more important than the fight to get the right to marry, because nearly every LGBT adult has or needs a job.
They conceded that sexual orientation was not on the minds of anyone in Congress when the civil rights law was passed. But they said when an employer fires a male employee for dating men, but not a female employee who dates men, that violates the law.
The rulings were victories for Gerald Bostock, who was fired from a county job in Georgia after he joined a gay softball team, and the relatives of Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who was fired after he told a female client not to worry about being strapped tightly to him during a jump, because he was "100 percent gay." Zarda died before the case reached the Supreme Court.
"The ordinary meaning of 'sex' is biologically make or female; it does not include sexual orientation," the Justice Department said. "An employer who discriminates against employees in same-sex relationships thus does not violate Title VII as long as it treats men in same-sex relationships the same as women in same-sex relationships."
The cases came to the Supreme Court that no longer includes Anthony Kennedy, who wrote all of the court's significant gay rights decisions. He was succeeded by Brett Kavanaugh, who is generally more conservative than Kennedy.
In a separate case, the court also ruled that Title VII outlaws discrimination against transgender employees. It upheld a lower court ruling that said Aimee Stephens was impermissibly fired from her job at a Michigan funeral home two weeks after she told her boss she was transgender. The company said she failed to follow the dress code.
Stephens did not live to see the case decided. She died May 12 while undergoing hospice care for kidney disease.