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Here’s the blunt reality: On Oct. 8 the U.S. Supreme Court’s will hear arguments on three cases impacting LGBTQ people. Its rulings could have the most profound consequences yet on LGBTQ people.
The three cases ask whether an existing federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment “because of sex” applies where discrimination is motivated by an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The existing law in question is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law states: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer [of 15 or more people] to … discriminate against any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”
LGBTQ legal activists say that discriminating against an employee because his or her spouse or sexual partner is of the same sex constitutes discrimination “because of such individual’s … sex.” They say discrimination against an employee whose gender identity differs from the sex attributes ascribed to them at birth constitutes discrimination “because of such individual’s … sex.”
Attorneys on the other side, including the Trump administration, say Congress did not intend to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the definition of sex, and sex discrimination is when “members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms … to which members of the other sex are not exposed.”
Both sides believe a conservative reading of the law favors them.
“If the Court reads the Title VII statute properly — and simply applies the literal words on the page — we will win,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel to Lambda Legal, a pro-LGBTQ impact litigation firm, which has submitted friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the gay and transgender employees in the three cases. “Having the Supreme Court confirm that understanding … will have enormous, powerful deterrent and remedial effects.”
And because similar language is used in federal laws covering housing, education, credit and health care,” Pizer added. “A win in these Title VII cases will be tremendous precedents for future litigation in those areas.”
Jon Davidson is chief counsel to Freedom for All Americans and former national legal director for Lambda Legal. He agreed with Pizer.
“The stakes for our community could not be higher,” he said.”[These are] the most consequential cases for LGBTQ people since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality and the most important cases about transgender people ever heard by the high court.”
Conversely, The Alliance Defending Freedom — a group that has spearheaded numerous lawsuits to diminish equal protection for LGBTQ people — has been sending out emails telling its supporters that the decisions will have enormous consequences, too. ADF says that, if the court allows “sex” to include “gender identity” the result could “undermine equal opportunities for women and girls” in athletics, force women’s shelters to accept men and force schools to “open locker rooms, restrooms and showers to men who claim a female identity.”
Many Supreme Court observers expect the trio of Title VII cases to be the most-watched cases of the 2019-20 term, which begins Oct. 7. That’s why below are some of the most important things LGBTQ people need to know about these upcoming cases:
When this will happen and how to watch it.
The arguments will begin at 10 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the U.S. Supreme Court. The first hour will be spent on two cases involving sexual orientation discrimination, and the second hour will be spent on transgender discrimination. People who live in the Washington, D.C., area can spend many hours waiting in line and maybe get into the court chambers to see and hear a few minutes of the proceedings — seats reserved for visitors are rotated. The proceedings are not televised, so the next best bet is to read a transcript of the arguments, which will be made available at supremecourt.gov later in the day. And audio recordings are available at the same site later in the week.
The three cases and their basic facts.
Each case involves Title VII. Two ask whether Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination. They are Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda from New York and the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and Bostock v. Clayton County from Georgia and the 11th Circuit. Arguments in these two cases have been consolidated and will be discussed in the first hour.
The Zarda lawsuit began in 2010, when a Long Island skydiving company called Altitude Express fired one of its instructors, Daniel Zarda. The company said it fired Zarda over a customer service problem; Zarda said it fired him because he disclosed to a jumper that he was gay. Zarda filed a lawsuit and, though he died in a skydiving accident in 2014, his estate carried on the litigation with the help of Lambda Legal. They won at the 2nd Circuit, but his former employer has appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Bostock lawsuit began in 2013 when the Clayton County Juvenile System in Georgia fired a longtime employee, Gerald Bostock, after he openly acknowledged joining a gay softball team. The county said it fired him for “conduct unbecoming a county employee;” Bostock said it fired him because he is gay. The 11th Circuit dismissed his lawsuit, noting it had previously ruled sexual orientation is not covered until Title VII. Bostock appealed to the Supreme Court.
The third case, which will be argued in the second hour, involves discrimination based on transgender status:
Harris Funeral v. EEOC originated in 2014 when funeral home director and embalmer Aimee Stephens filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Stephens said the Harris Funeral home fired her after six years on the job two weeks after she informed her employer that she would be transitioning from male to female. The funeral home said it fired Stephens because Stephens refused to abide by the company’s dress code, requiring that male employees wear a company-furnished men’s business suit. The EEOC found Harris Funeral in violation of Title VII, and the 6th Circuit agreed. Harris Funeral appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Prospects for Victory or Defeat
To win a case at the Supreme Court one must have the support of at least five justices. In the past, LGBTQ people could rely on getting that majority from the court’s four generally liberal justices — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and the moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy, in fact, became legendary for providing the critical fifth vote on marriage equality and striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. He also led 6-3 majorities in striking down sodomy laws and laws seeking to gut nondiscrimination ordinances.
But Kennedy retired last year and, with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the new court has a solid five-person majority of very conservative justices. Among the new justices is Brett Kavanaugh, whose answers around LGBTQ issues during his confirmation hearing were evasive to LGBTQ activists. The new majority also includes Neil Gorsuch, who wrote an article criticizing “liberals” for filing lawsuits on “everything from gay marriage to assisted suicide” to achieve their “social agenda.”
Hence, the prospects for victory have diminished in the past year.
Precedent Favors a Pro-LGBTQ outcome
One thing leaning in favor of the LGBTQ parties in these cases is precedent — previous Supreme Court rulings — in two cases.
In one case, decided in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on sex included discrimination based on gender-based stereotypes. The case was Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which a female employee at the accounting giant Price Waterhouse was rejected for partnership because some the top officials at the firm considered her too masculine. The Supreme Court plurality said the employer’s refusal to promote the woman was “motivated by stereotypical notions about women’s proper deportment” and that it constituted a violation of Title VII unless the employer could prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that it would have refused the promotion regardless of the employee’s gender.
In the second case, decided in 1998, the Supreme Court, led by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, said Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination, including a prohibition against sexual harassment, could be used to protect an employee from sexual harassment by an employee of the same sex. The case was Oncale v. Sundowner.
The caveat: while lower courts must abide by U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Supreme Court itself does not. The court has famously reversed precedent in cases involving segregation, interracial marriage and corporate financing in elections. Most relevant here, of course, is that the Supreme Court, in 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, reversed its 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick that had upheld state bans on same-sex sexual relations.
Complications and Consequences Abound
Relatively speaking, the Supreme Court moves slowly and prefers to leave the driving to Congress. It took 17 years for the Supreme Court to acknowledge that Hardwick was “not correct” and strike down sodomy laws with Lawrence. It took 17 years for the court to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act after it was enacted. And it took 43 years for the high court to rectify its dismissal of a marriage equality case in 1972 by striking down state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015.
But while this very large and slow-moving judiciary seemed to complete a full turn toward LGBTQ equality in 2015’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, a headwind seemed to develop last year with the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. The majority sent the case back to Colorado, saying the state’s human rights commission had expressed “hostility” toward the religious beliefs expressed by a wedding cake baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Some LGBTQ activists felt that decision gave “dangerous encouragement” to business owners who might want to circumvent laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination simply by claiming religious motivation. Similar cases have since multiplied and will, no doubt, be before the Supreme Court soon.
But the consequences of a ruling about Title VII and sexual orientation and transgender status are even greater. Currently, only 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit both sexual orientation and transgender discrimination in the workplace.
“If we win,” explained Davidson, “all LGBTQ people will be protected no matter where they live.”
A victory would “also be [a] resounding confirmatory statement that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is wrong,” Pizer added. “It’s impossible to overstate the ameliorative influence of such statements [and] witness the profound changes in social attitudes post-marriage equality.”
But there’s an equally enormous consequence and message if the LGBTQ community loses.
“If we lose either the sexual orientation cases or the gender identity/transgender status case,” Pizer said, “the consequences will be intensely dire in multiple ways. There will be a message that it’s perfectly legal to fire or refuse to hire [or] otherwise to abuse LGBTQ people at work.”