In a significant expansion of civil rights protections, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the prohibition against gender discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act necessarily extends to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status.
Although the Court guaranteed Americans the right to marry regardless of sexual orientation in 2015, more than half of U.S. states lacked any legal protection from discrimination in the workplace on these characteristics until today's landmark decision. Arkansas is among those states that currently does not explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity in state anti-discrimination laws. Title VII applies to "employers" with 15 or more employees, but the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, which applies to "employers" with 9 or more employees, follows Title VII standards.
In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court considered three conflicting cases from the Second, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits to address whether the term "sex" in Title VII includes sexual orientation or transgender status. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court's opinion and explained that although the lawmakers who wrote and adopted the Title VII may not have imagined this result, the text of the law is clear, and "all persons are entitled to its benefit."
Notably, while the Court acknowledged that religious employers may raise legitimate arguments over the intersection of this interpretation of Title VII and religious liberties in future cases, none of the employers considered in this opinion proved valid defenses under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As a result, any covered employer who takes an adverse employment action against an employee because of an applicants' or employees' sexual orientation or transgender status is in violation of Title VII.
While some employers currently include protections for sexual orientation and transgender status in their anti-discrimination policies, all employers will now need to update their handbooks and anti-discrimination policies accordingly.
If you have any questions about this HR Alert, or any other issues impacting your business, please contact an attorney with CGWG.