U.S. Supreme Court says gay, transgender workers are covered by landmark civil rights law

The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a watershed victory for LGBT rights, ruling that a landmark federal law forbidding workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.

Justices had to assess whether Civil Rights Act of 1964 was applicable

LGBT supporters wave their flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019, in Washington, when the court heard arguments on LGBT rights cases. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a watershed victory for LGBT rights, ruling that a landmark federal law forbidding workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.

The 6-3 ruling represented the biggest moment for LGBT rights in the United States since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.

In the new ruling, the justices decided that gay and transgender people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, colour, national origin and religion.

Workplace bias against gay and transgender employees has remained legal in much of the country, with 28 U.S. states lacking comprehensive measures against employment discrimination.

The rulings — in two gay rights cases from Georgia and New York and a transgender rights case from Michigan involving a funeral home employee — recognize new worker protections in federal law.

Alito calls ruling 'legislation'

The ruling was written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017. Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, along with the court's four liberal justices, joined Gorsuch's opinion. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the ruling.

Alito said the court had basically rewritten the law.

"There is only one word for what the court has done today: legislation," Alito wrote.

Trump's administration had opposed the LGBT workers in the litigation.

Trump said on Monday he will live with the top court's decision that a federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said it was a very powerful decision.

"They have so ruled," he said. 

In a statement, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden welcomed the decision, saying the Supreme Court "has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect and dignity."

Biden said if elected, he looked forward to signing the Equality Act into law to codify the protections. The bill easily passed the House over a year ago, with eight Republican members joining 228 Democrats in support but has not been taken up by the Republican-led Senate.

Aimee Stephens, seated, and her wife Donna Stephens, in pink, listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019. Aimee Stephens, who has since died, told CBC she was optimistic the top court would rule in favour of workplace protections for transgender employees. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Aimee Stephens, the funeral home worker at the centre of the Michigan case, spoke to CBC Radio's Day 6 after the case was heard last October at the Supreme Court.

"I knew there were hundreds of people like me. There had to be," Stephens told the program in January. "But it was not until I came out of the building on Oct. 8 that I realized that this number was in the thousands, not hundreds.… If I can put my name to this and lead the march forward for fairness and truthfulness, then I'm proud to do that."

Featured VideoIn 2013, Aimee Stephens was fired from her job after she came out to her employer as transgender and decided she would start presenting as a woman. Now her landmark case is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to make a decision sometime this year.

Stephens, who died in May due to complications of kidney failure, was optimistic despite the conservative tilt of the top court that the justices would see that 1964 law was applicable.

Stephens's wife Donna is now representing the estate.

Definition of 'sex' debated

The court ruled in two consolidated cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation.

In the New York case, skydiving instructor Donald Zarda was fired shortly after telling a female customer he was gay. Zarda, who worked for Altitude Express on Long Island, said he would sometimes reveal his sexual orientation to allay concerns women might have about being closely strapped together during a dive.

Zarda died four years after the firing, in a base jumping accident in 2014 in Switzerland.

Gerald Bostock, who said he lost his job in Georgia after it became known he is gay, is shown in Atlanta on Sept. 9, 2019. (Lawrence Hurley/Reuters)

In the Georgia case, a longtime county child welfare services co-ordinator in Clayton County named Gerald Bostock was fired in a performance review that occurred just weeks after he joined a gay softball league.

Bostock said there were "truly no words to describe just how elated I am" after hearing of the ruling.

"When I was fired seven years ago, I was devastated," he said in a statement. "Today, we can go to work without the fear of being fired for who we are and who we love."

The legal fight focused on the definition of "sex" in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, had argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers was inherently based on their sex and consequently was illegal.

Trump's administration and employers accused of discrimination in the cases argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to protect gay and transgender people when it passed the law.

Trump reversed

"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," Gorsuch wrote in the ruling. "Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."

Trump's Justice Department reversed the government position taken under former president Barack Obama that Title VII covered sexual orientation and gender identity.

Strongly supported by evangelical Christian voters, Trump has taken actions that have undermined gay and transgender rights since taking office in 2017.

Last week, Trump's administration issued a rule that would lift anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in health care.

His administration has also backed the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, banned most transgender service members from the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.

With files from CBC News