On June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, also prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender employees. Although many states already had such protections in place, the ruling makes those protections universal.
Title VII does not specifically mention gay and transgender employees, but the Court found that the language of the law covers them nevertheless.
The reasoning goes back to the actual language of the law. Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said, “An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex. Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.”
Gorsuch also wrote, “Or take an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth.”
What Does This Mean for the Workplace?
The Society for Human Resource Management, which applauds the ruling, quoted Elaine Turner, an attorney with Hall Estill in Oklahoma City, who said this ruling “will have a long-term impact on employers who are subject to Title VII.” She noted employers that violate Title VII can face costly legal actions.
Also quoted by the SHRM was JoLynn Markison, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. “If your employment policies do not currently provide for nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, you should update them to explicitly list those categories.”
Legal and human resources experts no doubt will be discussing the implications of the ruling for weeks and months. Meanwhile, employees should be aware of their rights — and companies should be aware of their responsibilities.
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