A Supreme Court remade by Donald Trump said on Monday that it would hear a major LGBTQ rights case, giving the White House a possible assist in its ongoing assault on gay and transgender rights.
The court said it would consider three cases that look at whether Title VII, the federal civil rights law that prohibits workplace discrimination, applies to LGBTQ workers.
The court will look at two decisions that came down on opposite sides of the issue: In Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, a Long Island skydiving instructor named Don Zarda was fired after telling a client he was gay. Last year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Zarda’s firing was discriminatory. But the 11th Circuit went the opposite way in a similar case, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia.
The Supreme Court will also look at a third lawsuit, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which a transgender woman was fired after she transitioned. The 6th Circuit ruled that her firing was discriminatory.
The case marks a pivotal moment in the fight for gay civil rights, but the current composition of the court with its two new Trump appointees ― Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch ― has some advocates worried. Kavanaugh replaced retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a swing vote in favor of gay rights.
“Everyone had hoped these cases would reach the Supreme Court with Justice Kennedy still on the court,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a counsel at Outten & Golden, who’s worked on LGBT rights cases on behalf of workers. “I think the chances of a victory for LGBTQ people and those who believe in civil rights is much smaller than several years ago.”
Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate against workers on the basis of race, religion and, crucially in these cases, sex. For example, under the law, employers can’t fire someone because they’re a woman, or African American or Christian.
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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing Title VII, has made it clear that it believes the law protects LGBTQ workers. And an increasing number of LGBT sex discrimination charges have been filed to the EEOC in recent years ― from 1,100 in 2014 to 1,811 in 2018.
Close to 40% of LGBT workers reported experiencing discrimination during their working lives, according to one study from the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law. And 7% said they lost a job because of their sexual orientation.
Oral arguments in the case will likely happen in the fall, and advocates expect that the four liberal justices will come down on the side of protections for LGBTQ workers.
It’s possible that Chief Justice John Roberts could swing their way, too, in order to keep the court in line with its precedent on gay marriage.
It would be “bananas” for the court to hold that same-sex marriage is legal while at the same time saying it’s OK to discriminate against workers in same-sex relationships, said Sally Abrahamson, a partner at Outten & Golden who co-chairs the firm’s LGBTQ rights practice. “I’m holding on to some optimism.”