The U.S. Supreme Court's June 15 ruling that employers cannot fire workers for being gay or transgender is a huge milestone in the fight for LGBTQ rights, but it doesn't resolve every question of discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace.
The court issued its 6-3 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, after hearing three cases in which an employee sued after being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The decision affirmed that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, also protects LGBTQ people.
"It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. Gorsuch, a conservative, was President Trump's first appointment to the Supreme Court, but he delivered a major rebuke to the administration, which argued that Title VII did not cover LGBTQ workers.
The decision also comes just days after the administration reversed Obama-era protections that barred discrimination against transgender people in health care. Legal experts and advocates for gay and transgender rights are hailing Monday's ruling as a big step forward.
"This is a monumental, game-changing win for our workforce and for our economy," says Jonathan Lovitz, a senior vice president at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
It's hard to overstate the ruling's importance when it comes to legal protection against discrimination, says Suzanne B. Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School and director of its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Goldberg notes that the decision could have implications far beyond employment, since courts often look to Title VII when they interpret laws that prohibit sex discrimination in other areas, like housing and access to credit.
Lovitz notes that an anti-discrimination ruling at the federal level could be reassuring to LGBTQ people who previously didn't feel comfortable being out at work, or who felt unable to move to a state with laws that allow discrimination. Prior to Monday's ruling, fewer than half of all U.S. states had similar protections on the books.
"This decision is going to help employers attract the best and brightest talent, because their geography is no longer going to determine how safe they are in the workplace," Lovitz says. "Now we have legal recourse to defend our community."
However, Title VII does not cover workers at businesses with fewer than 15 employees, or those who are not technically employees, such as independent contractors.
"We're still in a world of uneven protections," Goldberg says. The federal government requires its contractors to adhere to federal anti-discrimination laws, but if you don't work with the government and your business is very small or employs freelancers, it's important to be aware of state laws that specifically address discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
That said, the logic of the ruling--that discriminating against LGBTQ employees amounts to discriminating on the basis of sex, which is illegal--should carry over to the state and local levels, she says. "Yesterday's ruling sends a powerful message even to employers who are not covered by Title VII--because there's no reason that a state should interpret its anti-discrimination law any differently."
Importantly, the ruling also didn't decide whether employers can cite religious beliefs as a reason to exclude LGBTQ people from their workplaces. If an employer (besides a church or organization with an obvious religious affiliation) is sued for discriminating against an employee and claims a faith-based rationale for the action, it'll be up to the courts to decide whether that argument holds water, Goldberg says.
Monday's decision is a crucial step within a larger movement toward greater diversity and equality in the workplace, Lovitz says, particularly since many LGBTQ people--including women, people of color, veterans, and immigrants--face discrimination due to other aspects of their identity. "In strengthening our workforce laws for one community, we are in fact making things better for all communities to thrive in the workplace," he says.
Many companies already have anti-discrimination policies in place that include sexual orientation and gender identity--and if yours doesn't, now's the time to consider adding one. But Goldberg says it is culture more than code that allows LGBTQ employees to feel comfortable and protected at work. The Supreme Court decision should motivate employers to look critically at their cultures and at what behavior is and isn't tolerated, she says.
How do you do that? Ask your LGBTQ employees--and those with other marginalized identities--about their concerns, and then take meaningful action to better support them. Make sure there are ways to report incidents of discrimination or harassment, and that employees feel comfortable using them, says Goldberg. "The challenge and opportunity for employers is to make this more than a narrow legal compliance commitment and to support meaningful change in the ways people interact in the workplace."