On Monday, June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision clarifying that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Even though “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” are not explicitly stated in Title VII, the Court affirmed that these categories are included under prohibited sex-based discrimination. The Court explained that it is impossible for an employer to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without also intentionally treating an employee differently because of their sex.
The Supreme Court was very clear: “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” This decision settles a disagreement among the federal courts of the scope of sex-based discrimination. This Supreme Court decision arose out of a trio of cases from around the country, two involving gay men who said they were fired for their sexual orientation, and a third involving a transgender woman who was fired after informing her employer of her plan to transition genders. The Court ruled that these terminations violated Title VII.
This decision also settles a disagreement between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the U.S. Department of Justice, which had taken different stances on this subject, with the EEOC claiming that gay and transgender employees are federally protected from employment discrimination and the Department of Justice stating that these categories are not protected.
Both Title VII and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 contain exemptions for federal laws that substantially burden the exercise of religion, subject to limitations. However, in this decision, the Court iterated that the determination of how these exceptions interact with their interpretation of Title VII is a question to be carefully considered in future cases.
Impact for Employers
Before Monday’s Supreme Court decision, Missouri law prohibiting discrimination in employment, known as the Missouri Human Rights Act, did not specifically include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected categories. Now, federal law makes these acts of employment discrimination illegal. Accordingly, employers in Missouri will need to amend their non-discrimination policies to include protections against discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. These revised policies should be clearly communicated to employees and managers and these new prohibitions should now be included in any training provided.