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Supreme Court Rules Federal Law Protects LGBTQ Workers From Sex Discrimination

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2020 has already been a historic year. And today you can add another reason why. In a monumental decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination based on sex. The vote was 6-3, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's first appointee to the court, wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court's four liberal justices. Today, said Gorsuch, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. Such discrimination is barred by the language in the 1964 law that bans discrimination in employment based on race, religion, national origin or sex.

The decision is a huge victory for the LGBTQ community and a major loss for the Trump administration, which has sided with the employers in three cases before the court. Two involved employees who sued, contending they'd been fired because they were gay. Gerald Bostock won awards for his work as the child welfare coordinator for Clayton County, Ga. Then he joined a recreational softball league.

GERALD BOSTOCK: Within months, I was fired for being gay. I lost my livelihood. I lost my medical insurance, and I was recovering from prostate cancer when this occurred. It was devastating.

TOTENBERG: Aimee Stephens, who'd worked for six years as a male funeral director in Livonia, Mich., was fired two weeks after she told her boss that she was transgender and would be coming to work as a woman. She died earlier this year. But her case lived on, as did a third case involving a now-deceased skydiving instructor who was gay.

Justice Gorsuch couched his opinion today in terms of the text of the 1964 statute and its ban on discrimination because of sex. It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating based on sex, he wrote. Justice Samuel Alito, in dissent, accused the majority of sailing under a textualist flag, essentially pretending to remain true to the words of the statute but instead updating it to, quote, "better reflect the current values of society." John Bursch, who represented the funeral home in the transgender firing case, agreed.

JOHN BURSCH: They followed the culture not the law.

TOTENBERG: Gorsuch acknowledged that Congress in 1964 likely did not have the LGBTQ community in mind when it banned discrimination based on sex. But the words of the statute are clear, he said, and several major court rulings since then have read the law expansively - for instance, to bar discrimination against women because they have children and to ban sexual harassment against both women and men. As Gorsuch put it when referring to the law, the limits of the drafters' imagination supply no reason to ignore the law's demands.

At the end of his 33-page opinion, though, Gorsuch did invoke some potential caveats. And he pointed to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a, quote, "super-statute" that may offer a potential lifeline to employers who object, on religious grounds, to hiring gay and trans individuals.

That said, today's ruling was remarkable in many respects. Nearly half the states have no legal protection for LGBTQ employees. Now the federal law will give that protection. Although LGBTQ advocates acknowledge there may well be legal bumps ahead, as Stanford law professor Pam Karlan puts it...

PAM KARLAN: We didn't see really anybody other than the Conference of Catholic Bishops come in and make an argument that there are large numbers of employers who refuse, as a blanket matter, to hire people who are lesbian, who are gay, who are bisexual or who are transgender.

TOTENBERG: Yale law professor William Eskridge, who's written extensively on this subject, agrees. He notes that the liberal Warren court in the 1960s interpreted an immigration statute that barred psychopaths from entering the country to apply to all homosexuals.

WILLIAM ESKRIDGE: LGBT people have come a long way in the last generation. The country has come a long way in the last generation. And the Supreme Court has come a long way in the last generation.

TOTENBERG: And Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, had this to say.

EVAN WOLFSON: One big lesson from this opinion is, don't give up. You have to believe that you can change things.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.