United States Supreme Court Rules that Gay and Transgender Workers are Protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

United States Supreme Court Rules that Gay and Transgender Workers are Protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Posted on 06/16/2020 at 03:23 PM by Andrea Rastelli

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (consolidated with Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), interpreting the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 to include discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. 


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination “because of sex.” The EEOC’s position has long been that Title VII protects LGBTQ persons. Federal circuit courts of appeals, however, have disagreed about what Congress meant by “because of sex” and whether Title VII should be extended to prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or transgender status.

The Court accepted certiorari and consolidated three cases that were argued before the Court in October of 2019. Donald Zarda and Gerald Bostock, the plaintiffs in two of the cases, filed lawsuits in federal courts alleging that they were fired because they were gay, which they argued violated Title VII. In Zarda’s case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Title VII did bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, in Bostock’s case, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Title VII did not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the third case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit in Michigan against a funeral home that fired Aimee Stephens, a funeral home director who was transgender. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Title VII did bar discrimination based on transgender status.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the Majority, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. The issue in the three cases was framed with one simple question: “Today we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender.” In a 6-3 ruling, the Court held, “An 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.” Further, “Sex plays a necessary and undistinguishable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The Majority acknowledged that in 1964, Congress probably did not consider or intend to protect gay and transgender workers, saying: “likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. . . . But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”

The Majority made it clear that the Court was only ruling on whether an “employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” It when on to say, “Whether other policies and practices might or might not qualify as unlawful discrimination… are questions for future cases, not these.”

Impact on Iowa Employers

This decision does not change the landscape in 22 states, including Iowa, and the District of Columbia because these jurisdictions have state laws on the books that prohibit employment discrimination based on LGBTQ status. (In addition, Wisconsin state law protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.) 

Iowa employers have been barred from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their sexual orientation and gender identity since 2007, when an amendment to the Iowa Civil Rights Act (IRCA) became effective.

Today, the ICRA makes it illegal to discriminate in employment in Iowa because of a person’s age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, mental and physical disability, or pregnancy. The ICRA also prohibits retaliation against individuals for opposing discrimination or for participating in any proceedings brought under the ICRA.


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