U.S. Supreme Court Says Title VII Protects LGBT Workers

by Amy Beck

Man threatens to 'kill every gay person' he can at St. Louis Pride ...

In 2007, the Iowa Civil Rights Act (Iowa Code Chapter 216) was expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in our state’s civil rights laws.  This made it illegal to discriminate against a person because of his/her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  Now, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the federal civil rights law that applies to the entire country) will protect LGBT persons in the 23 states (including Nebraska) that did not have explicit state laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on gender identity in employment.

Unlike Iowa, Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Instead, it prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 2020 WL 3146686 (U.S. June 15, 2020), the United States Supreme Court held that an employer violates Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination “because of sex” when it fires an individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This landmark decision considered the individual claims of three plaintiffs:

  • Gerald Bostock worked for Clayton County, Georgia as a child welfare advocate and excelled in this role. However, when he joined a gay recreational softball league, individuals in the community began making disparaging comments about his sexual orientation and he was fired.
  • Donald Zarda worked as a skydiving instructor several seasons with Altitude Express in New York. A few days after Donald shared that he was gay, the company fired him.
  • Aimee Stephens worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan. When Aimee was hired, she presented as a male.  Two years into her service with the company, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and her doctor recommended that she begin living as a woman.  During her sixth year with the company, she shared with her employer that she planned to present and live as a woman when she returned from her upcoming vacation.  The funeral home responded by firing her.

The Court’s focus was not on the facts of the individual claims.  Rather, the Court focused on the fact that sex (and sex-based stereotypes) inextricably play a key role when an individual is discriminated against for his/her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Justice Gorsuch wrote the opinion, providing:

Sometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them. In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There, in Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 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.

 

Id. at *3 (emphasis added).

This ruling is especially important given that Iowa’s Republican majority has introduced bills in the legislature to remove gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act.  See HF2164.  Now, LGBT persons can take solace knowing that Title VII definitively provides protection.

We are ecstatic that the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in the last two decades reached this decision.  There is hope for justice and equality.  Happy Pride Month!

Amy Beck is one of our Iowa attorneys, specializing in employment litigation and civil rights.

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