Supreme Court Issues Landmark Title VII Decision Protecting Sexual Orientation
On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court rendered its long-awaited decision in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC on a 6-3 majority. For some time, lower courts had debated whether Title VII’s prohibition of job discrimination on the basis of “sex” extended to discrimination against employees due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. For LGBTQI+ employees, this represented a considerable gap in the law, and civil rights activists have fought for many years to recognize this protection under Title VII or amend the law to do so.
Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that the “answer [to that question] is clear”; Title VII does prohibit employers from firing employees “simply for being homosexual or transgender.” When an employer fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender, an employer is taking that action due to “traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” triggering Title VII’s protections. The Supreme Court noted that this result may not have been intended by legislators in 1964, but Justice Gorsuch stated that this is true of many interpretations of Title VII protections, including discrimination based on motherhood or sexual harassment of male employees. As the Court noted, “Only the written word is law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”
Employers must take note of this development and ensure that their employment policies properly reflect Title VII’s protections of LGBTQI+ employees. Further litigation is sure to develop, as employers will have considerable questions on how to ensure they are complying with Title VII’s protections. Meanwhile, employment rights advocates have much to celebrate today.