Back in October of 2019, we wrote about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), hearing a trio of cases involving gay and transgender employees being terminated from positions of employment. Yesterday, SCOTUS decided those cases. In the landmark ruling Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Court held in a 6-3 opinion that “[a]n employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that renders unlawful “an employer[’s] [decision] to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual...because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Historically, Title VII’s definition of “sex” only referred to biological distinctions between men and women. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, succinctly summarizes the essence of all three cases: “[a]n employer fired a long-time employee shortly after the employee revealed that he or she is homosexual or transgender-and allegedly for no reason other than the employee’s homosexuality or transgender status.”
Although the opinion, with dissents by Justices Alito and Kavanaugh, came out to 172 pages, Justice Gorsuch’s reasoning was fairly straightforward. Justice Gorsuch primarily relied on the statutory interpretation of Title VII itself. He reasoned that the plain meaning of Title VII at the time of its adoption leads us to conclude that an employer is liable under Title VII by intentionally terminating an employee because of that employee’s sex. Thus, when an employer discriminates against an employee for being gay or transgender, the employer is also discriminating against that employee’s sex.
Justice Gorsuch perfectly explains his reasoning here: “[a]n 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. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
Justice Gorsuch further discusses this by noting that “there is no such thing as a ‘canon of donut holes’” referencing Congress’s neglect to include certain cases in a statute’s definition, but that would otherwise fall within the general scope of the law. For example, Justice Gorsuch cites, the Supreme Court’s decision in Oncale v. Sundowner, which concluded the definition of sexual discrimination includes forms of sexual harassment (specifically, same-sex sexual harassment).
The legal significance of Bostock is broad. Although some states have already adopted workplace protections for employees that identify as gay or transgender, state and federal administrative agencies that process discrimination claims must now comply.