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LGBTQ advocates gathered in front of the Supreme Court on October 8, 2019.
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The Supreme Court’s landmark LGBTQ rights decision, explained in 5 simple sentences

Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion is clear, straightforward, and correct.

Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Bostock v. Clayton County, a landmark Supreme Court decision holding that federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers, was a test of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s principles. He passed.

Gorsuch is a vocal proponent of “textualism,” the belief that the meaning of a law turns on its words alone, not on the intentions of the law’s drafters. And Bostock forced Gorsuch to decide between his own conservative politics and following the broad language of a landmark civil rights law. Gorsuch didn’t simply honor his textualist approach in Bostock; he wrote the majority opinion.

In Bostock, the Court considered Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination that occurs “because of [an employee’s] race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Though there is little doubt that the people who drafted this law in 1964 did not believe they were enacting a ban on LGBTQ discrimination, the thrust of Gorsuch’s opinion is that the expectations of lawmakers in 1964 simply do not matter.

Only the text of Title VII matters. And, as Bostock explains at length, that text clearly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Gorsuch lays out why in just five crisp sentences on the first page of his majority opinion:

In Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. 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.

Remarkably, Bostock is a 6-3 opinion. Both Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, and Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, joined the majority. Roberts joined Gorsuch’s opinion in full and did not write a separate opinion. Neither man has shown much sympathy for LGBTQ rights plaintiffs in the past.

But the sheer force of the plaintiffs’ textual arguments in Bostock appears to have weighed heavily on both men. At the very least, Bostock suggests that this conservative Supreme Court can follow the clear text of a law, even when that reading points in a liberal direction.

Why discrimination against LGBTQ people is sex discrimination

Title VII bans any employment discrimination that occurs “because of ... sex.” As Bostock explains, this means that if an employer “intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee” or “if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer,” then Title VII has been violated.

Having laid out this rule, Gorsuch then explains why discrimination against LGBTQ employees constitutes “sex discrimination” by laying out two examples:

Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.

That is, if an employer permits its female employees to have sexual and romantic attractions to men but denies that same right to male employees, it is engaged in sex discrimination. It treats men differently than women.

Gorsuch also applies similar logic to a transgender employee:

Or take an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth. Again, the individual employee’s sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision.

Thus, Bostock turns on a simple application of Title VII’s text. Discrimination “because of ... sex” occurs whenever an employer treats male employees differently than female employees, or vice-versa. And, because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity necessarily requires an employer to treat some male employees differently than some female employees, or vice-versa, such discrimination is illegal.

The text of the law is the only thing that matters in Bostock. As Gorsuch concludes his opinion, “ours is a society of written laws,” and that means that “judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations.” Because Congress “adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee,” the Court must hold that anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace is illegal.

Anti-LGBTQ employers may still gain a religious exemption to Title VII

Bostock is, undoubtedly, a major victory for LGBTQ rights — before Bostock, it was still legal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in most states.

But it is unclear whether Bostock will entirely ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s because the Court is also considering whether to grant employers with religious objections to LGBTQ people an exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

In a concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), Gorsuch suggested that religious conservatives should enjoy sweeping exemptions from laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And the Supreme Court is expected to hear a case next fall asking whether religious organizations have a broad right to engage in anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

So the fate of individual LGBTQ workers remains unclear — at least for employees with bosses who object to LGBTQ people on religious grounds.

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