Injustice at Work

Published — June 15, 2020

Supreme Court ruling ensures protections for LGBTQ workers

Supporters of the LGBT wave their flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Where you work determined whether you could be fired for being LGBTQ. A 6-3 ruling just changed that.

Introduction

Antidiscrimination laws are such a patchwork in the U.S. that in parts or all of many states, employers could legally fire workers for being gay, lesbian or transgender. Until now.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sex also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. Whether Congress had this in mind when it passed the protections as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is immaterial, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

“Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit,” he wrote.

A 2019 Center for Public Integrity investigation found that 17 states offered no workplace protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, while a number of others offered only partial protections, in some cases just to public employees. The differing state and local laws, and individual company policies led to LGBTQ people feeling confused, stressed and eventually resigned to the discrimination when they realized they couldn’t pursue legal remedies.

As the story reported, an employee of an auto dealership in Billings, Montana, who said she was fired in 2016 because she was gay could do nothing about it. But had that happened to her in Bozeman, a Montana city that bans such discrimination, or if she’d been a state employee, it would have been a different matter.

“[The Montana Department of Labor] told me, ‘You could try to get your own private lawyer,’” Kathleen O’Donnell, the Billings worker, told Public Integrity in 2019. “As far as state protections, there was nothing they could do.”

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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