On 22 April 2019, the US Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari for the cases of Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. 2018) and Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County, No. 17-13801 (11th Cir. 2018) concerning the question of protection against discrimination in the workplace due to sexual orientation and, separately, for the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. 2018) concerning discrimination due to gender identity. All three cases will be heard under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964.
The application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 to discrimination based on sexual orientation has so far divided the federal Courts. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, discrimination is prohibited, inter alia, based on ‘sex’ and in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that Title VII applied to sexual orientation as well because it should be considered a ‘function of sex’ and therefore inextricably linked to the concept of ‘sex’. On the other hand, in Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County, No. 17-13801 (11th Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held, in a short per curiam opinion, that under Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 597 F.2d 936, 938 (5th Cir. 1979), “[d]ischarge for homosexuality [was] not prohibited by the Title VII.” This classic circuit split has prompted the Supreme Court to consolidate the two cases to answer the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Similarly, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 also applied to discrimination based gender identity explaining that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” The Supreme Court will now determine whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 in fact applies to discrimination based on gender identity as part of discrimination on account of ‘sex’ (The New York Times).
The question of the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity comes down to the manner of interpretation of Title VII. Under an ordinary literal interpretation, discrimination based on ‘sex,’ must necessarily refer to discrimination of women (comparing to men) or of men (comparing to women). This is further confirmed by the fact that Title VII offers an exhaustive list of characteristics that attract its protection – originally it included race, color, religion, sex and national origin and then, over time, pregnancy, age and disability were added (by Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). Out of these, ‘pregnancy’ is especially interesting as it is necessarily closely linked to sex, yet Congress considered it necessary to add it separately thereby reinforcing the position that ‘sex’ does not cover other characteristics that it is simply linked to. The same conclusion is arrived at using the originalist approach and looking at the understanding of this provision at the time it was being passed. Clearly, in the 1960s, Congress could not contemplate protection for homosexuals in the workplace given that many States at the time (and long afterwords) had anti-sodomy laws on the books. In fact, the unconstitutionality of such laws was only established by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). On the other hand, under a purposive interpretation, Title VII could be taken to be intended to prevent discrimination of minorities in the workplace. With such a purpose, the close relationship between sex and sexual orientation and sexual identity is probably enough to apply a wide construction equating those characteristics.
Given that the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 comes down to the manner of interpretation, the case is likely to be resolved along the ideological lines, with conservative Justices taking a literal/originalist approach and liberal Justices taking a purposive approach. The ultimate outcome of the case will probably lie with Chief Justice Roberts who, although an originalist, is also wary of political implications of the case. Chief Justice Roberts has a record of siding with the conservative Justices in gay rights cases (e.g. United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013), Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015)), however this is the first time the Court will hear such a case after the departure of Justice Kennedy who, although a conservative, always sided with the liberals in cases concerning gay rights. This dynamics might affect the way Chief Justice Roberts will vote.