The U.S. Supreme Court in its upcoming session will hear arguments on whether anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination is sex discrimination.
The court will hear arguments on October 8 about whether LGBTQ workers are protected by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“This is a momentous occasion. It is a pivotal moment and the public should be paying attention,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization focused on LGBTQ people, told ThinkProgress.
“These cases will affect the ability of LGBTQ people to be full members of society and to contribute to society by entering the workplace and be free of discrimination.”
In the worst case scenario, LGBTQ people would have to rely on a patchwork of state protections for employment protections and the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, would become even more critical to protecting LGBTQ rights.
Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia, and two territories explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Christy Mallory, senior counsel for the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, said, “The court may decide that neither sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination are forms of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. This would remove existing non-discrimination protections for LGBT people under Title VII, which would have a particularly significant impact on LGBT people who live in states without statewide non-discrimination laws.”
There are three cases but two questions before the court. Zarda v. Altitude Express and Bostock v. Clayton County have been consolidated to consider sexual orientation as sex discrimination and Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC will consider discrimination against transgender people.
The Zarda case involved an employee named Donald Zarda being fired from Altitude Express, where he worked as a skydiver. He informed a woman he was gay while they were strapped to each other because he thought it would make her feel more comfortable. She later informed his employer that she wasn’t happy with his sharing his being gay and he was subsequently fired. Zarda died in 2014 but his estate pursued the case.
The Bostock case focuses on Gerald Bostock, a child welfare services coordinator who was in a gay recreational softball league. He said his participation in the league and his sexual orientation became a problem with someone at work. Then he was fired for “conduct unbecoming of a county employee,” which he said was tied to his sexuality.
Harris involves Aimee Stephens, a trans woman, who was fired from her job at a funeral parlor after she informed the funeral director she worked for that she was transgender. She had worked in funeral services for nearly 20 years and received positive feedback from her employer.
The briefs from plaintiffs and their supporters have focused on a textualist understanding of the law — hewing closely to the original text of the Constitution, which the conservative justices may be more inclined to accept — rather than legislative intent, or what lawmakers had in mind in passing related legislation.
Several law professors have argued in their briefs that the court can look to Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), which says employers can’t use sex-based stereotypes when taking employment actions.
Gonzalez-Pagan said one doesn’t need to believe that anyone can be transgender. Despite the mountains of evidence, “the reality is that in the discrimination in this case against this employee, Aimee Stephens, she did not conform to the expectations of her birth-assigned sex that the employer had.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group whose attorneys have linked marriage equality with a “degradation of our human dignity,” and filed a petition asking the court to hear one of these cases, has argued that lower courts “redefined” sex in the law. Mallory pointed out that Title VII itself does not define the term “sex.”
But plaintiffs and others can also argue that when discriminating against queer and trans people, you necessarily have to consider sex.
“The fact is that in the arguments we are making, that plaintiffs are making, and others are making in this case, this is really about the text of the statute. This is really a very conservative argument — textualist and adhering to the letter of the law. And the reality is that when you consider somebody’s same-sex attraction, somebody’s transgender status — by definition you have to consider their sex,” Gonzalez-Pagan said.
“You are impermissibly considering sex in taking an employment action. There’s no way around that. It’s not that we are in this case proposing that there be another definition of sex. It is being elucidated in other cases and in scientific literature and the medical establishment and there is a consensus that is built but we don’t even have to go there. Because either way, because no matter the definition you consider of sex, you’re still considering that sex in making that employment decision.”
Some historians have argued in an amicus brief that the understanding of sex in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s was such that LGBTQ people could have been understood to be included. They wrote, “This broad understanding of sex, as evoking a range of sex roles, sexual expression, and sexual instincts, shaped public knowledge about LGBT individuals. Mid-twentieth century writers sometimes grouped LGBT people under the term ‘sex variants’—a term introduced by psychiatrist George Henry to mean primarily persons he considered homosexuals, though he sometimes also included individuals who wished to change their sex, regardless of their sexual desires.”
They added, “The word ‘sex’ thus covered a broad range of meaning in the mid-twentieth century—one that encompassed the behavior, practices, and identities of LGBT individuals.”
Gonzalez-Pagan said that a common argument against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s was that by prohibiting sex discrimination, one could apply it to LGBTQ people.
“[O]pponents of LGBTQ equality that are trying to dismantle these protections recognized by EEOC and federal courts and vast majority of public — what they’re trying to do is have their cake and eat it too,” he said.
“They are saying these protections aren’t necessary because they will essentially protect LGBTQ people and now they’re saying they don’t cover LGBTQ people. So it’s really illustrative of their bad faith.”
He added, “It’s not about not whether we have arguments on our side, but whether the court will adhere preferences for statutory interpretation, or political ideology. That’s what really what’s at stake here.”