It was announced on Monday that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a trio of cases likely to have massive ramifications regarding the applicability and scope of employment discrimination laws.
The court agreed to hear three cases, all of which feature homosexual or transgender plaintiffs, to determine whether federal laws prohibiting job discrimination apply in cases of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Gender identity, sexual orientation discrimination at issue
The first of these pivotal cases involves a New York skydiving instructor who claimed to have been fired because he was gay. Though he has since died, his case has been taken up by his former life partner and his sister.
The second case involves a Georgia county employee who claimed to have been fired from his job as a child welfare services coordinator because he is gay.
Finally, the third case involves a transgender woman in Michigan who claimed to have been dismissed from her job at a funeral home after transitioning from male to female.
Cases turn on critical question
The pertinent question raised by all three cases is whether the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination against certain protected classes of people would include those who claim to have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on color, national origin, race, religion and biological sex. The law makes no mention of gender identity or sexual orientation.
However, some district and circuit level courts have ruled that the law does apply to those classes, such as the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Circuit Courts of Appeal, while the 11th Circuit Court has ruled that the law does not apply to them.
Those disparate rulings on the circuit court level have now prompted the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter and settle it one way or the other with a determination on the applicability of the law and what constitutes a “protected class” of people.
Decision to have far-reaching implications
Liberal LGBT groups are obviously pushing to have sexual orientation and gender identity recognized by the high court as specific classes that enjoy statutory protection against discrimination.
However, the Trump administration’s Justice Department has argued that, based on a clear reading of the federal statute in question, those two classes are not included in the law and therefore should not be granted special protections.
It is impossible to estimate the potentially profound implications of these cases for both employees and employers — which other “classes of people” might demand protection from discrimination if these cases succeed, and what level of autonomy employers will be permitted to retain with regard to hiring decisions — just as it is similarly impossible to speculate as to how the court might rule on these cases, even with a “conservative” majority among the nine justices.