SCOTUS ruling

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender people from employment discrimination is a historic achievement for equality. For the first time, Americans no longer have to fear being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation or sexual identity. That the protection comes in a ruling supported by two conservative justices underscores how far Americans have come in understanding the injustices visited upon their LGBTQ neighbors.

In much of America, gay and transgender people put their livelihoods at risk simply from being open about who they are. That’s not the case in Illinois, which in 2006 established a broad ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Chicago granted protection to gay people in 1988. But many states allow employment discrimination, and some forbid it only in the government sector. With this decision, gay and transgender people are finally protected everywhere, though it’s possible there will be future challenges to the law on religious liberty grounds.

The decision involved two cases in which men said they were fired after their employers learned they were gay and one in which an employee lost her job after announcing she was a transgender woman. By a 6-3 vote, the court found that none of the workers would have been dismissed except for their sex. Given that, the employers were in violation of Title VII of the law, which says they may not fire or discriminate against anyone “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, named to the court by President Donald Trump, noted that the two gay men were allegedly discharged for something that would have been acceptable to their employers in a woman—an attraction to men. Had the transgender woman continued to identify as male, as she did when hired, she presumably would not have been terminated. “For an employer to discriminate against employees for being gay or transgender,” Gorsuch concluded, “the employer must intentionally discriminate against individual men and women in part because of sex.”

Lawyers for the employers argued that when Congress banned sex discrimination, it had no thought of helping gay or transgender people. Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito argued that “there is not a shred of evidence that any member of Congress interpreted the statutory text that way when Title VII was enacted.”

But the court has previously ruled that the ban covers conduct that lawmakers did not have in mind in 1964. In a 1998 case, the famously conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “Male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

That same logic impelled the court to interpret the law to cover this form of discrimination as well. With that, it took a huge step to establish full equality for people who have long been subject to cruel mistreatment. Their lives will be better for it, and so will America.

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