The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a landmark civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment, a resounding victory for LGBT rights from a conservative court.
The court decided by a 6-3 vote that a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 known as Title VII that bars job discrimination because of sex, among other reasons, encompasses bias against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The decision was a defeat not just for the employers, but also the Trump administration, which argued that the law’s plain wording compelled a ruling for the employers. Gorsuch, a conservative appointee of President Donald Trump, concluded the opposite, and Trump said Monday he accepted the court’s “very powerful decision.”
Gorsuch was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberal members. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s other Supreme Court pick, dissented, along with justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.
“The Court tries to convince readers that it is merely enforcing the terms of the statute, but that is preposterous,” Alito wrote in his dissent. “Even as understood today, the concept of discrimination because of ‘sex’ is different from discrimination because of ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity.’”
Kavanaugh wrote in a separate dissent that the court was rewriting the law to include gender identity and sexual orientation, a job that belongs to Congress. Still, Kavanaugh said the decision represents an “important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans.”
Trump had a restrained reaction, telling reporters he had read the decision and that “some people were surprised.”
He added: “But they’ve ruled and we live with their decision. That’s what it’s all about. We live with the decision of the Supreme Court. Very powerful. A very powerful decision actually. But they have so ruled.”
The outcome is expected to have a big impact for the estimated 8.1 million LGBT workers across the country because most states don’t protect them from workplace discrimination. An estimated 11.3 million LGBT people live in the U.S., according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA law school.
Gerald Bostock, a gay county government worker from Georgia whose lawsuit was one of three the Supreme Court decided Monday, said no one should have to be “fearful of losing their job because of who they are, who they love or how they identify. And the justices have now made sure that we won’t have to worry about that.”
John Bursch, who argued the appeal from a Michigan funeral home owner against a fired transgender employee, said, “Americans must be able to rely on what the law says, and it is disappointing that a majority of the justices were unwilling to affirm that commonsense principle. Redefining ‘sex’ to mean ‘gender identity’ will create chaos and enormous unfairness for women and girls in athletics, women’s shelters, and many other contexts.”
But Monday’s decision is not likely to be the court’s last word on a host of issues revolving around LGBT rights, Gorsuch noted.
Rights groups have said they will challenge the administration’s effort to roll back anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in health care. Lawsuits are pending over transgender athletes’ participation in school sporting events, and courts also are dealing with cases about sex-segregated bathrooms and locker rooms, a subject that the justices seemed concerned about during arguments in October. Employers who have religious objections to employing LGBT people also might be able to raise those claims in a different case, Gorsuch said.
“But none of these other laws are before us; we have not had the benefit of adversarial testing about the meaning of their terms, and we do not prejudge any such question today,” he wrote.
The cases were the court’s first on LGBT rights since Justice Anthony Kennedy retired and Trump replaced him with Kavanaugh. Kennedy was a voice for gay rights and the author of the landmark ruling in 2015 that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States. Kavanaugh generally is regarded as more conservative.
The Trump administration had changed course from the Obama administration, which supported LGBT workers in their discrimination claims under Title VII.
During the Obama years, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had changed its longstanding interpretation of civil rights law to include discrimination against LGBT people. The law prohibits discrimination because of sex but has no specific protection for sexual orientation or gender identity.
Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, praised the decision on Twitter as “another step in our march toward equality for all. The Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect.”
In recent years, some lower courts have held that discrimination against LGBT people is a subset of sex discrimination and thus prohibited by the federal law.
Efforts by Congress to change the law to explicitly bar job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity have so far failed.
The Supreme Court cases involved two gay men and a transgender woman who sued for employment discrimination after they lost their jobs.
Aimee Stephens lost her job as a funeral director in the Detroit area after she revealed to her boss that she had struggled with gender most of her life and had, at long last, “decided to become the person that my mind already is.” Stephens told funeral home owner Thomas Rost that after a vacation, she would report to work wearing a conservative skirt suit or dress that Rost required for women who worked at his three funeral homes. Rost fired Stephens.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the firing constituted sex discrimination under federal law.
Stephens died last month. Donna Stephens, her wife of 20 years, said in a statement that she is “grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The federal appeals court in New York ruled in favor of a gay skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired because of his sexual orientation. The full 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 10-3 that it was abandoning its earlier holding that Title VII didn’t cover sexual orientation because “legal doctrine evolves.” The court held that “sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex and is thus a subset of sex discrimination.”
That ruling was a victory for the relatives of Donald Zarda, who was fired in 2010 from a skydiving job in Central Islip, New York, that required him to strap himself tightly to clients so they could jump in tandem from an airplane. He tried to put a woman with whom he was jumping at ease by explaining that he was gay. The school fired Zarda after the woman’s boyfriend called to complain.
Zarda died in a wingsuit accident in Switzerland in 2014.
In a case from Georgia, the federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled against Bostock, a gay employee of Clayton County, in the Atlanta suburbs. Bostock claimed he was fired in 2013 because he is gay. The county argued Bostock was let go because of the results of an audit of funds he managed.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Bostock’s claim in a three-page opinion that noted the court was bound by a 1979 decision that held “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.”
Janesville manufacturer Hufcor is wrestling with an apparent COVID-19 outbreak that prompted the company to shut down its plant last week and require its workers to seek coronavirus testing.
In a June 11 company memo obtained by The Gazette, Hufcor told its Janesville employees they were required to report back to work Monday morning.
But the memo noted all workers had to provide the company with test results that showed they were free of coronavirus infection before they could return to the northeast-side plant.
“Every person who walks through the door will need to have provided proof of a negative test result from a test administered in the previous week. If you have not or cannot provide proof of a negative test result, you will not be permitted inside the building until you are able to provide said document,” part of the memo reads.
Hufcor manufactures moveable room partitions. According to the memo, the company told all employees as of June 8 they would need to get tested for COVID-19 or communicate with the human resources office if they had trouble getting a test scheduled.
The memo included information on where workers could get a test, including a health care clinic in Machesney Park, Illinois—a facility Hufcor officials said could issue COVID-19 test results “in as little as 15 minutes for those who are asymptomatic.”
Hufcor’s memo lists the restrictions employees will face upon returning to work a week after the plant had shut down temporarily, including mandatory face shields or surgical masks and safety glasses. Some office workers were told to consider working from home if possible.
It’s not clear when the plant’s management decided to temporarily close the facility, and Hufcor in its memo did not address how many of its workers might have been exposed or were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.
A Hufcor executive did not immediately respond to a reporter’s message seeking comment on the closure and reopening and how many employees were affected.
The Gazette inquired about the Hufcor shutdown in phone calls and an email to the Rock County Public Health Department on Monday. An official said the department was reviewing the inquiry, but as of late Monday, the department had issued no further response.
Last week, the health department announced that public health data indicated that Rock County had met enough health benchmarks to clear the county for phase two of reopening.
The county continues to urge residents and businesses to follow physical distancing guidelines and encourages retail businesses to limit occupancy. Those guidelines aren’t mandates and aren’t enforceable, county officials have said.
Hufcor laid out in the memo its own reopening guidelines, including a plan to limit most plant employees to assigned work and break areas.
The company thanked workers for their “flexibility and understanding” regarding the closure.
“We never want to stop production and affect our customers in a negative way if it can be avoided, but the health and safety of our employees is and will continue to be our top priority,” the memo reads.
A Janesville teen was charged Monday with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in a recent shooting near Lincoln Elementary School that a prosecutor said left the victim needing five surgeries so far.
Rock County Court Commissioner Jack Hoag ordered Kenan L. Clemons, 17, held on a $50,000 cash bond after the teen also was charged with armed carjacking, burglary and misdemeanor theft.
Janesville police announced late Thursday they had arrested Clemons on charges related to the shooting of Trenton Strommen, 36, also of Janesville, on June 6 after a bike theft.
Clemons told police that after he and another teen stole a bike, Strommen caught up with them and threw the other teenager to the ground before Clemons shot Strommen multiple times, according to the criminal complaint.
Assistant District Attorney Mason Braunschweig said Strommen was “very, very fortunate to not be dead” and “may lose his arm.”
In arguing for a $100,000 cash bond, Braunschweig said the prosecution’s case included a confession.
Defense attorney Frank Raff said that amount was “obviously unconstitutionally high.” He argued Clemons was arrested five days after the shooting still in Janesville, a place the teen has lived for about 10 years.
Raff asked for a $5,000 bond.
Police and prosecutors have said Clemons and another teen June 6 stole a bike from Strommen’s garage, which prompted Strommen to get into his car and follow them to the 1900 block of Conde Street.
Earlier that afternoon, Clemons and the other teenager went to hang out with someone he knows and showed that person a gun, saying it was for his enemies and that he had “shells hot and ready,” according to the complaint.
Janesville police on Thursday arrested two teenage suspects police say were involved in the shooting of a man near Lincoln Elementary School last weekend, according to a news release late Thursday.
Clemons’ mom later told police two of her guns were missing, the complaint states.
After the bike theft, one witness told police he heard Strommen say something to the effect of, “You stole the bike out of my yard you piece of s---,” the complaint states.
After hearing shots go off, the witness got his own handgun and went outside, where he soon helped with Strommen’s injuries before first responders arrived.
Clemons told police that when Strommen showed up, he cut them off in the street, the complaint states. Clemons said he then laid the bike down and told Strommen to take it, but Strommen kept yelling at them.
Clemons told police that as Strommen kept walking toward them, he backed up, pulled out his gun and took off the safety but did not fire, according to the complaint. But Clemons said Strommen grabbed the other teenager and slammed him onto the ground.
After they got up, Clemons said he shot Strommen twice, the complaint states. Strommen took cover behind another nearby car, but after that car drove away, Clemons shot Strommen three more times.
Clemons and the other boy took Strommen’s car and fled, according to the complaint.
The boys took the car to Afton, where they tried to go to a friend’s house, according to the complaint. But their request was denied, and Clemons later told police the car would not start again without a key fob, so they ran away into the nearby woods, where Clemons said he hid the gun and his phone.
Clemons’ mom also showed up to the area because her son messaged her saying, “pick me up on Afton Road,” the complaint states. She told police she had last seen her son that morning.
The other boy, 16, also was arrested Thursday, on suspicion of party to operating a vehicle without owner consent while armed, criminal damage to property and trespassing, police said.
Janesville police in a news release after the arrest listed the homicide charge as attempted second-degree intentional homicide, but the district attorney’s office chose the more serious first-degree charge.
After the shooting, Strommen was flown to a Madison hospital, according to the complaint, which says he had four surgeries to be stabilized. Braunschweig at Monday afternoon’s bond hearing said it was five surgeries so far.
A GoFundMe has been started to help pay for Strommen’s medical expenses and has raised more than $10,000.
Clemons will appear in court at 9:30 a.m. Monday, June 29, for a preliminary hearing.
This story was updated at 5:38 p.m. Monday with details from the criminal complaint.
Philip Truran Jones
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