Today, the United States Supreme Court will hear three cases that will have significant impact on the rights of LGBTQ people, specifically whether it is legal to fire workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The ACLU represents Aimee Stephens, who was a funeral director when she was fired by R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes here in Michigan after she told her employer that she is a transgender woman. The other two cases, Altitude Express Inc. v. Donald Zarda and Gerald Bostock v. Clayton County involve male employees who were fired from their jobs when their employers discovered that they were gay. (The ACLU also represents Zarda.) Currently, Michigan and federal civil rights laws do not specifically provide protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Supreme Court, which will issue their opinion later next year, will decide if it is illegal for firing a person for being gay or transgender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against people because of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
If a majority of the Supreme Court justices simply read and apply the literal words of Title VII, we will win since it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. There is no way to argue that discriminating against LGBTQ people is unrelated to their sex and stereotypes regarding their sex. For example, gay and lesbians are unable to conform to society’s notions as to which sex they should be physically and romantically attracted to. To be transgender is to identify differently from the sex assigned at birth, and thus fail to comply with stereotypes regarding gender identity, appearance and behavior appearance. Significant numbers of federal courts and governmental agencies have confirmed what most Americans believe-that current federal law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people.
A win for LGBTQ rights from the highest court in the land, confirming the sex discrimination analysis will send a strong message that LGBTQ people are to be treated with the same fairness and accorded the same dignity as other Americans in all important aspects of life- including employment, housing, healthcare and education. A negative decision in any of these three cases would send a dire message that it’s perfectly legal under federal law to fire, refuse to hire, or treat LGBTQ workers badly.
Fortunately, Congress can override a bad decision by passing the Equality Act, a federal civil rights bill that explicitly provides comprehensive protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people. In addition, Michigan’s legislature can also amend our current civil rights laws to specifically cover sexual orientation and gender identity as well.
Nevertheless, we feel very strongly that this Court cannot in good conscience and in clear understanding of the language of Title VII, turn its back on federal case law precedent and strip away LGBTQ protections that have been recognized for years. We enter the courtroom with both the firm conviction of our legal arguments and the cautious optimism that the Court majority will both understand and do the right thing.