Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, October 12, 2019

United States Supreme Court Considers Whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Prohibits Discrimination Against Gay and Transgender Persons

I.    Introduction

On October 8, 2019, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in three cases that will decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender persons.

Specifically, in Altitude Express v. Zarda (No. 17-1623) and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (No. 17-1618), the question presented is whether discrimination against an employee on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes employment discrimination “because of . . . sex” within the meaning of Title VII. In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 18-107), the question presented is whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on: (1) their status as transgender; or (2) impermissible sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).

By way of background, Title VII provides in relevant part as follows:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer:

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[1]

The text of Title VII unquestionably prohibits discrimination against individuals based on their biological sex. What remains unresolved, however, is whether “discrimination against any individual … because of such individual’s … sex” includes a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status.

II.    Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation

On one hand, it can be argued that, if Congress had intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it would have included language to this effect in Title VII. Thus, it is Congress’s, not the Court’s, responsibility to amend the statute to include sexual orientation within Title VII’s protections.

On the other hand, discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is arguably predicated on impermissible gender stereotyping and, as such, constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex. Indeed, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Court held that “we are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”[2] Accordingly, discriminating against gay persons constitutes discrimination “because of [an] individual’s … sex” because it is based on an impermissible stereotype regarding how males and females should behave (i.e., they should be heterosexual).

 III.      Discrimination Against Transgendered Persons

In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, counsel representing the transgender individual argued that a reasonable interpretation of Title VII supports prohibiting discrimination against transgendered persons:

Harris Homes fired her [the transgender individual] for identifying as a woman only because she was assigned a male sex at birth. In doing so, it fired her for contravening a sex-specific expectation that applies only to people assigned male sex at birth; namely, that they live and identify as a man for their entire lives. That is disparate treatment on the basis of sex.[3]

Counsel for the funeral home disagreed, arguing that “[t]reating women and men equally does not mean employers have to treat men as women. That is because sex and transgender status are independent concepts.”[4]

This case certainly presents the Court with difficult questions, including how, for purposes of Title VII protections, to address the concept of gender identity, and if gender non-conforming individuals, namely, those who believe that their gender does not reflect their assigned sex, should be distinguished from those who have permanently transitioned to another sex (i.e., transsexuals). Indeed, as many feminist scholars posit, gender is arguably a social construct, in which society defines the roles that are deemed appropriate for individuals of a particular biological sex (e.g., male or female). As such, some might argue that one’s gender identity reflects a subjective belief that they do not comport with the gender construct associated with their assigned biological sex. For this reason, advocates of this position would likely argue that gender identity is distinguishable from sex (and possibly sexual orientation) and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to identify gender non-conforming individuals. As such, creating a remedy for discrimination on this basis would be entirely unworkable and, as Justice Neil Gorsuch stated, cause “massive social upheaval.”[5]

Conversely, a strong argument can be made that if an employer knowingly discriminates against a gender non-conforming individual, such discrimination would reflect discrimination on the basis of gender stereotyping, which the Court in Price Waterhouse deemed impermissible. Supporters of this position would likely argue that discrimination against gender non-conforming individuals is indistinguishable from discrimination against gay persons because both are predicated upon gender stereotyping. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted during oral argument, “the cases have said that the object of Title was to get at the entire spectrum of sex stereotypes.”[6]

The Justices appeared to struggle with these issues, particularly regarding whether the legislature, not the judiciary, should amend the law to include protections for transgendered persons, whether the definition of sex should include gender identity, and whether a ruling for transgendered persons would negatively impact individuals who, based on religious beliefs, would choose not to hire transgendered persons.[7]

The Court will likely issue a decision in June 2020.

 [1] 42 U.S.C § 2000e-2.

[2] 490 U.S. at 251 (emphasis added); see also Oncole v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998).

[3] See Transcript of Oral Argument, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 18-107), p. 4:3-10, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2019/18-107_c18e.pdf.

[4] Id. at p. 27:22-25.

[5] Id. at p. 25:17-18.

[6] Id. at p. 50:24-51:1 (emphasis added).

[7] Mark Sherman and Matthew Barakat, Divided Supreme Court Weighs LGBT People’s Rights, (Oct. 8, 2019), available at: https://www.apnews.com/b67d54e0812e43db832e086806a3a2fd.

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