By Elizabeth Hardison
For the Pittsburgh Current
In a landmark victory for LGBTQ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court held Monday that employers can’t legally fire people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
In a 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that employers who fire individuals “merely for being gay or transgender” violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex and other characteristics — but not specifically gender identity or sexual orientation.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first appointee to the high court, and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices in the case. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh filed dissenting opinions.
“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,” wrote Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The ruling will have a profound effect on millions of LGBTQ people and their families. Nearly 5 percent of U.S. adults — more than 11 million people — identify as LGBTQ, according to Reuters, and large percentages report workplace discrimination.
More than 40 percent of lesbian, bisexual and gay people — and 90 percent of transgender people — have faced employment discrimination based on their sexual orientation, according to court documents.
But its consequences stand to be particularly far-reaching in Pennsylvania, the only state in the northeast that does not explicitly prohibit the denial of housing, employment or services to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
State and federal courts have typically interpreted Pennsylvania’s Human Rights Act in accordance with the federal Civil Rights Act, Brendan Lynch, an employment attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said.
That’s offered LGBTQ people a basis to sue if they believe they’ve suffered discrimination, since federal courts have ruled that the federal law’s prohibition of sex discrimination includes bias against LGBTQ people.
But Pennsylvania courts aren’t bound to that interpretation. The ruling the Supreme Court issued on Monday, however, affirms that it is illegal for an employer to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It’s a tremendous win,” Harry Young, executive director of the Keystone Business Alliance, and member of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, said.
Young said that advocates and attorneys were still working to determine the full extent of the decision on Monday morning. It’s unclear, for instance, whether the ruling will cover workplaces with fewer than four employees, Lynch said, due to technicalities in state and federal employment law.
The ruling also does not protect Pennsylvanians from discrimination in housing or public services.
Advocates have struggled for more than 50 years to advance state-wide LGBTQ protections through Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Though there is bipartisan support for bills banning discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, the legislation is currently languishing in Republican-controlled committees.
More than 50 municipalities have adopted local laws prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination, including most of the state’s major and mid-size cities, according to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a statewide LGBTQ youth advocacy organization.
But advocates say that Pennsylvania’s patchwork of local laws is no replacement for comprehensive protections at the state level, and the Supreme Court ruling won’t slow their efforts ensure LGBTQ people have equal access to housing and public accommodations.
“This is a step in the right direction, but there is still more work to be done,” Holly Evans, president of the transgender advocacy group TransCentral PA, told the Capital-Star.
Justices heard cases last fall involving plaintiffs who argued that they were wrongfully fired because of their gender orientation and sexual identity.
Aimee Stephens — a transgender woman from Michigan — was fired after she informed her boss she planned to transition from male to female.
Gerald Bostock of Georgia and Donald Zarda of New York were fired after their employers learned of the sexual orientation. Bostock, a social worker, lost his job with Clayton County after joining a gay softball league. Zarda, a skydiving instructor, was fired after informing a customer of his sexual orientation.
Elizabeth Hardison is a staff writer for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.