On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court handed down what is aptly described as a landmark equal rights decision. The Court announced that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does indeed prohibit discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or transgender status.
The Court evaluated two companion cases where an employer allegedly fired a long-time employee simply for being homosexual or transgender. While evaluating these cases the Court focused on the language of Title VII which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex.” The employer argued that the term “sex” under Title VII means only a person’s status as male or female and therefore it did not protect an employee’s sexual orientation or transgender status. In considering that argument, the Court believed it to be too narrow a view. Rather, upon review of Title VII’s plain language and its application in other cases, the Court reasoned that an adverse employment decision based on an employee’s homosexual or transgender status necessarily relies, at least in part, on that employee’s sex.
After reaching this conclusion, the Court held in a 6-3 opinion that the term “sex” in Title VII encompasses a person’s sexual orientation and transgender status. Therefore, because Title VII prohibits sex discrimination, it prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status. Specifically the Court said, “[b]ecause discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII.”
The implication of this decision goes far beyond the federal realm, as it will most certainly have a significant impact on state and local discrimination and human rights statutes. Although a number of states and municipalities, including Minnesota, have long prohibited sexual orientation and transgender discrimination in employment, many others did not provide such protections. The Court’s decision now unequivocally requires such state and local governments to amend their laws. This will, in turn, require employers to re-evaluate their policies and practices to ensure that sexual orientation and transgender status in the workplace are treated on equal footing with other protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, and national origin, to name a few.
Employers with questions about the Court’s decision and its impact on the workplace or work environment are encouraged to contact the Employment Law Group at Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A by calling 320-200-4928.