DURHAM, N.C. -- In a 6-3 opinion Monday, Justices Gorsuch and Roberts joined the more liberal wing of the Supreme Court in its opinion that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from firing workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"The United States Supreme Court held that it is a violation of federal statutory law to fire someone from their job because they’re gay or transgender. This was the right result," says Duke University law professor Doriane Coleman. “In the usual case, being gay or transgender has nothing to do with a person’s ability to do their work, and so it is wrong to make employment decisions on these grounds.”
“Indeed, for too long, because people who are gay and transgender have been unable to get or keep jobs, they have been unable to sustain life’s basics – to take care of themselves and their families – simply because others were uncomfortable in their presence. The decision today makes plain that this discomfort and the economic marginalization that results are unlawful.”
“The way the court reached this result, through a literal interpretation of the word “sex,” has important implications for other kinds of cases. First, all nine justices agreed that the word ‘sex’ means the biological or reproductive classification that distinguishes males from females. And all nine agreed that sex is distinct from sexual orientation and gender identity. The majority – six justices – held that firing someone because they are gay or transgender requires taking into account their biological sex and it is this – taking account their sex -- that literally violates Title VII.”
“In so holding, the majority declined both to expand the meaning of the word ‘sex’ to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and to extend ‘sex stereotyping’ theory to cover the particular facts at issue in the cases.”
“Second, the majority made clear that it was leaving for another day the decision on how federal law applies to decisions other than hiring and firing that were raised during oral argument and in public commentary. Specifically, because they involve different considerations, the court expressly left for another day the lawfulness of sex-segregated bathrooms, locker rooms, dress codes and sports. The justices in the majority did not express views about how they might decide such cases.”
“Academics, advocates and social media commentators on all sides of the issues in these pending cases will speculate. They’ll seek to spin the decision in Bostock so that it supports their positions. However, all that’s clear for sure is that the court isn’t willing to read ‘sex’ in existing statutory language beyond its traditional meaning.”
Doriane L. Coleman, a professor of law at Duke University School of Law, specializes in interdisciplinary scholarship focused on women, children, medicine, sports and law. She can discuss sex, including its evolving definition and its implications for institutions ranging from elite sport to medicine and law.
For additional comment, contact Doriane Coleman at:
"In a very dark moment in this country’s history, the Supreme Court today set forth a glimmer of hope," says Duke University law professor Trina Jones.
“The ruling is based largely on a textual reading of the word ‘sex’ in Title VII, with the court determining that distinctions based on sexual orientation and gender identity are ‘because of sex.’”
“To be sure, the employers in the cases argued for an interpretation of sex limited to 'reproductive biology,' whereas the employees argued that sex included 'broader norms' concerning gender identity and sexual orientation. The Court notes that 'because nothing in our approach to these cases turns on the outcome of the parties’ debate, and because the employees conceded the point for argument’s sake, that it would proceed on the assumption that “sex” 'refer[s] only to biological distinctions between male and female.' The Court then finds that it is unlawful discrimination because of sex to 'penalize men for being attracted to men and women for being attracted to women.' In addition, the Court notes that by discriminating against transgender persons, an 'employer unavoidably discriminates against persons with one sex identified at birth and another today.'”
"Those of us who write in this area were unclear about the probable outcome in the trilogy of cases the court decided today, because the court was interpreting a congressional statute and Congress has failed to pass legislation in recent decades prohibiting discrimination on these bases. Also, there was some division on this question within lower federal courts and governmental entitles like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice.”
“Although discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity were not contemplated by Congress in 1964, neither was sexual harassment. Yet, the court has extended the statute’s protections before to reasonably comparable evils. This is an extraordinarily wonderful -- and somewhat surprising -- outcome, and it is not an understatement to say that it is a landmark ruling.”
“The decision increases the possibility that the more than 8 million members of the LGBT community will be treated with the dignity and respect that people deserve in every aspect of life, and especially when they are simply trying to earn a living. This is a particularly significant ruling for the transgender community as this may be the first time the Supreme Court has acknowledged trans people and extended them any type of protection.”
“It is unclear how this ruling will affect interpretation of other federal statutes, like Title IX and the Fair Housing Act, where the word ‘sex’ also appears.”
Trina Jones, the Jerome M. Culp Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, specializes in racial and socio-economic inequality. She can discuss employment discrimination and federal law that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion and disability.
For additional comment, contact Trina Jones at: