In a 6-3 ruling, the US Supreme Court today declared that federal law bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The decision is a major victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people across the United States.
The court found that discrimination against LGBT people is barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate in employment because of a person’s sex. This provision did not expressly protect LGBT employees, and prior to this decision, LGBT people were subject to a patchwork of legal protections.
Only 22 states and the District of Columbia expressly prohibit employment discrimination against LGBT people under state law. Under federal law, LGBT workers enjoyed piecemeal protection, with some courts finding that federal laws covered discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and others concluding that it did not.
The ruling is likely to send shock waves throughout all of US antidiscrimination law, not just in employment. Courts have often looked to the meaning of “sex” in the context of Title VII to interpret the scope of sex discrimination provisions in education, health care, and other fields.
The Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender people across these areas by arguing that they are not covered by sex discrimination protections. Today’s ruling significantly undermines that reasoning and makes the use of the word “sex” in these contexts open to far less interpretation.
Instead of waiting for the courts to revisit these regulations, Congress should act to make today’s ruling law. The Equality Act would create uniform protections for LGBT people across a range of federal civil rights laws – not only in employment, but in education, housing, public spaces, credit, federally funded programs, and jury service. It has passed the US House of Representatives, but has not been taken up by the Senate.
These protections enjoy clear public support. An April 2020 poll found that 72 percent of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. Supporters included a majority of Democrats and Republicans and a majority of people in every US state.
The Supreme Court has handed down a far-reaching ruling by a large margin. The Senate should promptly enact express protections throughout federal law and affirm the equality and dignity of LGBT people in the United States.