Decision Applies Civil Rights Act to Employment Issues in All 50 States
The United States Supreme Court, in a surprisingly one-sided ruling, handed down a decision on Monday, June 15, 2020, applying Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to employment issues involving sexual orientation and gender identity. The high court ruled, in Bostock v. Clayton County (GA), that Title VII forbids discrimination against gay and transgender workers. In perhaps the biggest surprise, two of the court’s more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and recently appointed justice Neil Gorsuch, joined the court’s more liberal justices for a 6-3 decision.
Plaintiff Was Fired for Joining Gay Softball League
The petitioner, Gerald Bostock, worked in the child welfare services department in Clayton County, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. In 2013, Bostock signed up to play in the Hotlanta Softball League, a gay recreational sports league. That decision ultimately cost him his job. Bostock had been an advocate for children in the county’s juvenile justice system for a decade prior to his termination and had consistently received strong performance evaluations. Because of his high level of performance, he was given control of the county’s court-appointed special advocates program.
After joining Hotlanta, Bostock quickly found himself the subject of criticism within the court system. In May 2013, an advisory board castigated him for his sexual orientation and his participation in the league. A month later, he was terminated for “conduct unbecoming of a county employee.” County officials allege that he mismanaged funds, but Bostock maintained that was a fabrication. Bostock subsequently changed careers, taking a job as a mental health counselor for adults. He filed a lawsuit against Clayton County, alleging violation of his civil rights under federal statute.
The Impact of the Decision
The most important aspect of the court’s decision in Bostock is that it finally establishes that Title VII applies nationwide in cases involving sexual orientation and gender identity. Many states have enacted their own statutes prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but it was not settled as to whether federal law protects those categories. In fact, until the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling, only 21 states had laws providing such protection. Congress has made numerous efforts to amend Title VII with explicit protections for gay and transgender workers, but to no avail. The Supreme Court’s decision now clarifies protection under the federal statute across the land, obviating any further need for congressional action.
In writing the majority opinion, Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, took a straightforward approach, concluding that “an 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,” something Title VII forbids.
Bostock’s case was one of three joined together for argument to the Supreme Court. In the other two cases, which involved a transgender funeral director and a gay skydiver, the lower courts had ruled that Title VII did provide plaintiffs with protection (both decisions were affirmed in the U.S. Courts of Appeal). However, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia had ruled against Bostock, and that ruling had been affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Supreme Court’s Bostock opinion reverses the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling.