Today, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on a group of cases which formally extends existing protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to employees who are discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch explains that, “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.” Gorsuch adds that “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.”
The Supreme Court’s decision finally puts to rest the question of how broadly terms used in Title VII apply to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in 2015 indicating that Title VII already afforded protections to LGBTQ workers and several federal court cases came to a similar conclusion. However, in 2017, the EEOC position began to shift, resulting in a situation where in August of 2019, the EEOC filed a Supreme Court brief arguing against the very position it had taken in 2014 when it sued on behalf of a transgender funeral home employee.
Although Title VII protections have been questioned for several years, 21 states have passed laws providing protection to LGBTQ workers and many companies have proactively included those workers in policies which prohibit job-based discrimination. As a result, many employers are well positioned to move forward with little if any change to internal policies and procedures. Employers who have not proactively addressed these issues may wish to review employee handbooks, personnel policies, interview procedures and other employment practices to reduce the risk of discrimination claims.
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