Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In a landmark decision this morning, the United States Supreme Court held that Federal Law prohibits job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The case concerned Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex. The question for the Court was whether the last prohibition — discrimination “because of sex” – applied to many millions of gay and transgender workers. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that it did.

Most federal appeals courts have interpreted Title VII to exclude sexual orientation discrimination. But two of them, in New York and Chicago, have ruled that discrimination against gay men and lesbians is a form of sex discrimination. In addition, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that “[i]t is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex,” the court said, adding, “discrimination ‘because of sex’ inherently includes discrimination against employees because of a change in their sex.” Twenty-one states, including Illinois, currently have their own laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. With this ruling, Title VII now provides similar protections under Federal Law while the state statutory protections remain in place. This ruling, as opposed to prior rulings on sexual orientation, dealt with statutory interpretation as opposed to being grounded in constitutional law.

The Supreme Court’s ruling stemmed from two sets of underlying cases. The first involved a pair of lawsuits filed by gay men who claimed to be fired because of their sexual orientation. The first man was fired from a government job in Clayton County, Georgia after he joined a gay softball league. The second case involved a man who was fired from his job as a skydiving instructor after telling a client that he was “100% gay.” The transgender claim involved a woman who was fired from a funeral home in Michigan after she announced that she was transgender and that she would be dressing as a woman at work. The owner of the funeral home admitted that the reason for the termination was because the plaintiff was no longer going to represent himself as a man.

The Justice department opposed this interpretation arguing that "the ordinary meaning of 'sex' is biologically male or female; it does not include sexual orientation." It further argued that "an employer who discriminates against employees in same-sex relationships, thus, does not violate Title VII as long as it treats men in same-sex relationships the same as women in same-sex relationships." The Court disagreed and held that "[a]n 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,” and that “[s]ex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."

Although the Illinois Human Rights Act was amended (effective January 1, 2006) to prohibit employers from discriminating against potential and current employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, more than half of the about 8 million LGBT workers in the United States live in states that do not currently have anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity. As such, today’s ruling is sure to have a sweeping impact on the employment landscape in the United States.

If you have questions about how this ruling might affect your workplace, please contact a Johnson & Bell Employment Shareholder, Christopher J. Carlos, Brian C. Langs, Joseph F. Spitzzeri or Genevieve M. LeFevour.