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Setting Stage for 'Landmark Moment for Equality,' Supreme Court to Hear Cases on Workplace LGBTQ Discrimination

"The impact of this decision will have very real consequences for millions of LGBTQ people across the country."

A rainbow flag is held up outside the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it would take up a trio of cases alleging employment discrimination based on workers being gay or transgender. The justices will decide whether Title VII protections extend to LGBTQ workers. (Photo: Ted Eytan/flickr/cc)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it would consider three cases involving whether federal law on employment discrimination extends to LGBTQ workers.

Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said it was "huge news" that the high court is taking up (pdf) the cases. "This will be a landmark moment for equality that will define the legacies of the Supreme Court justices," he said.

The three cases, according to USA Today, are:

  • A New York skydiving instructor, Donald Zarda, alleged he was fired because he was gay. He died, but his sister and life partner continue to press the case.
  • A Georgia county government employee, Gerald Bostock, alleged he was fired from his job as a child welfare services coordinator because he was gay.
  • A Michigan transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, alleged she was fired from the funeral home where she worked for six years as Anthony Stephens because of her transition.

Simply put, "No one should be denied a job or fired simply because of who they are or who they love, including LGBTQ people," said Sarah Warbelow, HRC legal director, in a statement.

Reuters described the stakes of the cases and what it means that the court is hearing them now.

At issue in the high-profile legal fight is whether gay and transgender people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin, and religion. President Donald Trump's administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

With the cases, said GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders), the Supreme Court has the opportunity "to clearly affirm what more and more courts have agreed on—#TitleVII includes employment protections for #LGBTQ people."

"To roll back those protections would be devastating for workers across the country," the organization said. Eric Lesh, executive director of the LGBT bar association of New York, echoed that point:

James Esseks, director of the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project, also addressed what's at stake:

The Supreme Court ruling that Trump seeks—that firing LGBTQ people is legal—would shock most of America. A core American value is that people should be judged in the workplace based on their performance, not their identity. It's a travesty that our government is advocating for discrimination to be legal.

The stakes here are huge. If federal law says it's fine to fire someone because she’s lesbian or transgender, other federal civil rights laws may well not protect LGBTQ people, either. The federal education anti-discrimination law may not stop schools from harassing transgender students. The Federal Housing Act may not stop landlords from evicting same-sex couples. And the Affordable Care Act may not prevent health care providers from turning away transgender people. In fact, such a ruling could lead to the very "erasing" of transgender people from civil rights laws that the Trump administration is reported to have been considering last fall.

The conservative-majority court will hear the cases in fall with decisions possible in June 2020—which is noteworthy timing, wrote Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog.

"Until today, the cases slated for oral argument next term had been relatively low-profile, but this morning's announcement means that the justices will have what will almost certainly be blockbuster cases on their docket next fall, with rulings to follow during the 2020 presidential campaign," she wrote.

In the meantime, gay and transgender rights advocates say that Congress should take action by passing the Equality Act. The recently reintroduced legislation would amend federal civil rights law to extend explicit non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.

Passing the Equality Act, said HRC's Warbelow, would "address the significant gaps in federal civil rights laws and improve protections for everyone."

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