By Saswat Pattanayak
In a far-reaching and landmark 6-to-3 ruling which coincides with the Pride Month, the US Supreme Court has ruled that federal sex discrimination protections extend to gay and transgender workers, making it clear that employees cannot be fired under federal law simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
The decision is also being talked about because it has been authored by one of the most conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “We must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear,” Gorsuch wrote. “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. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
For the past 50 years, Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination has been interpreted to imply that employers could not treat women worse than men, and vice versa, not that discrimination against LGBTQ employees was prohibited.
The ruling which has, in effect, changed the law and whose ramifications are yet unknown, comprise the opinion and two dissents that span 168 pages.
Following are excerpts from the judgment –
“An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the plaintiff ’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred. Title VII’s message is “simple but momentous”: An individual employee’s sex is “not relevant to the selection, evaluation, or compensation of employees.”
An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex. Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague. Put differently, the employer intentionally singles out an employee to fire based in part on the employee’s sex, and the affected employee’s sex is a but-for cause of his discharge. Or take an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth. Again, the individual employee’s sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision.
That distinguishes these cases from countless others where Title VII has nothing to say. Take an employer who fires a female employee for tardiness or incompetence or simply supporting the wrong sports team. Assuming the employer would not have tolerated the same trait in a man, Title VII stands silent. But unlike any of these other traits or actions, homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex. Not because homosexuality or transgender status are related to sex in some vague sense or because discrimination on these bases has some disparate impact on one sex or another, but because to discriminate on these grounds requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex.”