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Supreme Court rules gay, transgender workers are protected from workplace discrimination

Supporters of LGBTQ rights hold placards in front

Supporters of LGBTQ rights hold placards in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 8, 2019. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a momentous victory for LGBT rights on Monday, ruling that a landmark civil rights law also protects gay and transgender employees against workplace discrimination.

The 6-3 decision centered on three cases — including one lawsuit filed by a Long Island skydiver who didn’t live to see the milestone ruling.

Chief Judge John G. Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch broke with conservative colleagues and joined the four liberal members of the bench. They said gay and transgender workers are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex, as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

It was the biggest legal victory for gay rights since the court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. 

One of the lawsuits at the center of the decision Monday had been filed by Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who said he was fired in 2010 by a Calverton company because he was gay.

Zarda said he told a female pupil he was gay to allay any concerns she might have about being strapped together during a dive. The company, known as Altitude Express and Skydive Long Island, contended he was fired because of poor customer service.

Zarda died while BASE jumping in 2014. But his family continued the civil rights lawsuit.

“They’re thrilled,” Gregory Antollino, Zarda’s lawyer, said Monday of Zarda’s family. “That it was 6-3, and not just 5-4, built in an extra layer of legitimacy. I’m thrilled with the result, too. But what’s more important than Don’s family winning is that all gay people in the United States won.”

Zarda's lawsuit had been consolidated with two others. One centered on a man who said he lost his job working for Clayton County, Georgia, after he began playing in a gay recreational softball league. The third involved a transgender funeral director from Michigan who was fired when she told her employer that she had struggled with gender identity issues and planned to begin dressing as a woman.

President Donald Trump's administration had backed the employers being sued. It argued Congress didn't intend to cover gay people when it enacted Title VII. But it also said Congress should settle the matter by amending the law to add LGBT people.

In the end, one of Trump's appointees to the court, Gorsuch, wrote the opinion for the majority.

"Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender," Gorsuch wrote. "The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Gorsuch set aside arguments that Title VII didn't apply because sexual orientation was not written into it in 1964. 

"Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result," the judge wrote. "Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. "

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the three dissenters, said the statute’s protection against sex discrimination was limited to a person’s sex, not sexual orientation.

“If every single living American had been surveyed in 1964, it would have been hard to find any who thought that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination because of sexual orientation — not to mention gender identity, a concept that was essentially unknown at the time,” Alito wrote.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), New York's lone openly gay state senator, hailed the ruling.

 “Discriminating against LGBTQ Americans in the workplace has always been morally wrong. Now, it’s clear that it’s also illegal," Hoylman said. He added: "Until this morning, federal law said I could’ve been fired from a job simply for mentioning my husband David to a colleague."

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