On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that employers may not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment. This decision affects all employers with 15 or more employees.
The decision was a response to three separate cases, all of which were about employment discrimination based on “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. There has been debate for years about the definition of sex under Title VII. Originally, many assumed that it meant only that men and women could not be treated differently, but over the years the Supreme Court has interpreted the definition to include certain characteristics or expectations related to sex. Previous decisions, however, had not yet provided a definitive answer as to whether sexual orientation and gender identity were protected—we now know the answer is “yes.”
Several circuit courts of appeal had already ruled that sex included sexual orientation, gender identity, or both, and many states have their own civil rights laws to protect these characteristics in the context of employment (often at a lower employee count). Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII, has for years held the position that sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and has sued employers for discrimination based on that interpretation.
The Supreme Court ruling also clarified that:
- It is irrelevant what an employer might call its discriminatory practice, how others might label it, or what else might motivate it. When an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily intentionally discriminates against that individual in part because of sex.
- An individual’s sex does not need to be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action. It is of no significance if another factor, such as an individual’s attraction to the same sex or presentation as a different sex from the one assigned at birth, might also be at work, or even play a more important role in the employer’s decision
- Employers cannot escape liability by demonstrating it treats males and females comparably as group. An employer who intentionally fires an individual homosexual or transgender employee in part because of their sex violates the law even if the employer is willing to subject all male and female homosexual or transgender employees to the same rule.
The court clearly stated, “In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
This ruling takes immediate effect.
Read the ruling here.