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The Hobby Lobby ruling includes a potential victory for LGBT rights

Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision may have undermined a key legal argument against federal workplace protections for LGBT employees.

Opponents of workplace protections often argue that employers should be able to cite their constitutionally protected religious beliefs when deciding whether to hire or fire LGBT employees. But the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision suggests religious beliefs can't be used to justify workplace discrimination.

"The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. "Our decision today provides no such shield. The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal."

It's possible the Supreme Court could decide against protections for LGBT workers in a future ruling that specifically addresses the issue. The Hobby Lobby decision, after all, focused on birth control.

But, for now, LGBT advocates are taking the decision positively, although somewhat cautiously. Rose Saxe, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project, says it's important the Supreme Court carved out a clarification for workplace protections.

"I don't think that we can stop looking at this issue, but at the same time I think the court did recognize a very important distinction," Saxe says. "It will hopefully prevent this decision from being used to allow even more discrimination in the workplace."

The ruling only applies to federal law. Since federal law doesn't protect all LGBT employees from workplace discrimination, the ruling's possible effects only apply to more limited federal statutes. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for instance, in 2012 interpreted federal prohibitions on sex discrimination to also prohibit discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming employees.

Eighteen states protect LGBT employees from workplace discrimination, while three additional states only protect gay and lesbian workers. The state-level workplace protections, however, exempt religious organizations such as churches and ministries. According to previous Supreme Court rulings, religious organizations are allowed to discriminate against anyone, even on the basis of race or sex, in their hiring practices.

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