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Momentous Supreme Court Decision Supports LGBTQ Rights

On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that LGBTQ employees — including all LGBTQ educators — are protected under federal law from discrimination at work based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Published: June 16, 2020

This is a momentous decision. As the Court put it, “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” Over 100 federal statutes prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Court’s ruling should apply to those statutes as well. The following Q&A addresses key questions about the decision, its consequences, and how we can work to guarantee full LGBTQ equality.

What is this Supreme Court case about? Why is it important for protections against sexual and gender discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. In recent years, the lower courts began to recognize that LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination that violates current federal law. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed.

Although the Supreme Court considered only employment cases, its ruling has much broader implications; it should also control sex discrimination law in education (Title IX), housing, health care, and more.

How might this case affect educators?

For decades, LGBTQ educators have faced employment discrimination and suffered through sweeping, bigoted campaigns to remove from them the classroom as well as individual discriminatory treatment.

But now the Supreme Court has officially recognized that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of illegal sex discrimination. As such, LGBTQ members are henceforth protected under federal civil rights law on the job.

“It is really hard to overstate how big this is,” says Eric Harrington of the NEA Office of General Counsel.

How might this case affect students?

Although the Supreme Court decided employment cases under Title VII, LGBTQ students’ rights will be affected as well. That is because courts, including the Supreme Court, construe and interpret the prohibition on sex discrimination in education found in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in the same way they construe Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions. In other words, since LGBTQ employees are protected by Title VII, LGBTQ students should also be protected by Title IX. The Court’s decision, should “mean that anywhere sex discrimination is prohibited in federal law or the constitution, LGBTQ discrimination is prohibited,” says Harrington.

“Being LGBTQ in schools can be really hard,” says NEA’s Harrington. “Just coming out as a kid can be very difficult. LGBTQ students often face backlash from the community and at school. All that negative social pressure is really hard. It also contributes to higher rates of depression and suicide.” On the other hand, he says “when LGBTQ students go to schools that are welcoming and supportive, they do so much better. They thrive. Discrimination is harmful. And inclusion is super-positive.” Today, the Supreme Court sent a powerful message to our LGBTQ students: you matter and you are protected from discrimination under federal law.

What is the current status of the case? What is the timeline for a ruling?

The Supreme Court announced its decision on June 15, 2020, during the middle of Pride. In an opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Court held that an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. The four liberal-leaning justices, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor joined him, as did Chief Justice Roberts. Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh dissented.

What was NEA’s role in this case? What other steps is NEA taking to support LGBTQ rights?

NEA led a coalition of education groups in filing an amicus brief in the Supreme Court. The brief supported the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of sex discrimination, arguing that LGBTQ discrimination is sex discrimination for the very same reasons that the Court ultimately embraced.

The coalition included the National Schools Board Association, who had never before filed a brief in the Supreme Court on the side of expanding employee rights.

NEA is also active in supporting state and national legislation that guarantees protections against sexual and gender discrimination. Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, and two territories outlaw LGBTQ discrimination in employment, either by statute specifically prohibiting discrimination on those bases or because the state interprets prohibitions on discrimination based on sex to encompass discrimination on those bases. At the national level, the Equality Act is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit explicitly discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations and public education. The bill passed in the U.S. House in May 2019. It went to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked it from coming up for a vote.

Despite this historic Supreme Court victory, passage of the Equality Act remains necessary. NEA considers mobilizing in support of the Equality Act to be a top legislative priority. NEA has worked to educate members and affiliates on this issue. The Supreme Court’s decision should apply to sex discrimination law beyond employment law, but that will have to be ultimately settled in the courts absent Congressional action. Passing the Equality Act would announce and determine, once and for all, that LGBTQ discrimination violates federal law in all civil arenas—employment, education, housing, credit, health care, and more.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.