Inside the 3 major Supreme Court cases involving LGBT rights and the Civil Rights Act

by John Wesley Reid · Oct 8th, 2019 5:09 pm
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Last Updated Nov 19th, 2019 at 9:01 am

Today the Supreme Court heard three cases involving Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion. What is being challenged in these cases is whether the term “sex” in Title VII includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC involves a male employee who was terminated for refusing to abide by his employer’s dress code policy after the employee said he identified as female and would begin wearing dresses to work. The company, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Home, argues that the former employee, who now identifies as Aimee Stephens, agreed to the company’s terms upon employment six years prior and since Stephens is now wanting to break the policy, this is grounds for termination. Stephens is arguing that the termination is based on his gender identity and believes this violates Title VII of the CRA.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took Stephens’ case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Harris was defended by Alliance Defending Freedom. The District Court ruled in favor of the funeral home, saying that “sex” under Title VII does not include transgender identity. The District Court also argued that since Harris is a devout Christian who runs the company under his religious convictions, per the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Harris is within his legal right to terminate Stephens.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision saying that “sex” under Title VII does include gender identity, and that Harris failed to display how Stephen’s actions prohibit or restrain Harris’ ability to exercise his faith. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case and heard the oral arguments this morning. A decision should be given Spring.

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia
Gerald Bostock, a child welfare services coordinator, worked for Clayton County, Georgia for ten years. In 2013 he joined a gay softball league. Bostock received criticism for his sexual orientation and participation in the gay recreation league and shortly after the criticism took place, Bostock was informed that Clayton County was conducting an internal audit on the program that he ran. Bostock was subsequently terminated. Though the results of the audit are not discussed, Bostock sued Clayton County, arguing that his termination was based on his sexual identity and thus he believes Clayton County is in violation of Title VII.

The District Court and Court of Appeals ruled against Bostock, disagreeing with his interpretation of Title VII to include sexual orientation in the term “sex.” The United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case, which it heard today in consolidation with the following case, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda.

Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda
Donald Zarda worked as a skydiving instructor with Altitude Express. Due to the nature of his work, it was necessary that he be strapped to first-time jumpers. Zarda, who was gay, would sometimes tell female clients that he was gay as a means of easing any concern they would have with such close proximity to a man they did not know. One female client accused Zarda of touching her inappropriately and then cited his orientation as a means of covering up. Zarda was subsequently terminated.

The District Court ruled in favor of Altitude Express, arguing that “sexual orientation” is not a proper interpretation of “sex” under Title VII. The case was appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals who reversed the decision, ruling that sexual orientation is included under Title VII.

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