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Supreme Court Rules Employers Cannot Discriminate Against LGBT Workers Under Title VII

June 16, 2020

On June 15, 2020 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 6-3 decision that employers cannot discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to . . . discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. The Supreme Court’s ruling holds that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination also covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, it is now unlawful for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or discharge an individual, or otherwise discriminate against an individual, based on their LGBT status. This change in the law pertains to discrimination in the employment context only and is final unless Congress chooses to enact legislation reversing or altering the court’s decision.

The Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on a worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination because the employer is essentially making a decision based in part on the individual’s sex. The majority was not persuaded by the argument that Congress had not intended to protect sexual orientation or gender identity at the time they enacted the Civil Rights Act and instead found there was no reason to ignore the law’s demands. While LGBT status is now a basis for Title VII liability, employers may continue to make employment decisions on neutral or non-discriminatory grounds, such as performance or violation of employer policies. 

It is not yet clear how this decision will impact state civil rights laws that do not currently prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it is possible that such state courts and administrative agencies will align with the Supreme Court’s interpretation and interpret their civil rights statutes to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In any event, most employers are required to follow both federal and state laws. Therefore, employers covered by Title VII should immediately revise employee handbooks and policies to prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers.

Please contact one of Varnum’s labor and employment attorneys if you have any questions about this issue or require assistance in updating your employment policies or practices.

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