Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on LGBT Workplace Discrimination

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on LGBT Workplace Discrimination

The US Supreme Court denied an appeal in a case concerning whether discriminating against LGBT employees on the basis of their sexuality violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination, the Hill reported on Monday. Giving no explanation for its decision, the court refused to hear the case of Jameka Evans, a former security guard at Georgia Regional Hospital, who claims she was harassed and forced out of her job because of her sexual orientation and gender-nonconforming appearance.

Evans, represented by attorneys from the LGBT legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal, had taken her case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but a panel of judges in that court ruled against her in March on the basis of a precedent from 1979. The 11th circuit declined to rehear the case en banc (by the full court), so Lambda Legal petitioned the Supreme Court to resolve it instead. According to the Hill, the organization expressed disappointment in the court’s decision, noting that it leaves unresolved a split decisions among different circuit courts regarding the rights of LGBT Americans in the workplace:

“But this was not a ‘no’ but a ‘not yet,’ and rest assured that Lambda Legal will continue the fight, circuit by circuit as necessary, to establish that the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination,” Greg Nevins, the group’s employment fairness project director, said in a statement.

“The vast majority of Americans believe that LGBT people should be treated equally in the workplace. The public is on the right side of history; it’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court has refused to join us today, but we will continue to invite them to do the right thing and end this hurtful balkanization of the right of LGBT people to be out at work.”

Many US employers will be disappointed as well, as the high court’s decision was highly anticipated within the business community. Back in October, 76 companies including Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft signed onto an amicus brief urging the court to resolve the uncertainty created by the absence of any federal law clearly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—i.e., by ruling that this is already proscribed by Title VII. This summer, another group of 50 employers, again including many of the major players in tech, filed a similar brief with the Second Circuit Court in New York, which is considering another LGBT discrimination case en banc.

So far, the only appeals court to rule that these protections apply to LGBT individuals is the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago, which issued its landmark ruling in April. “The logic of the Supreme Court’s decisions [in past Title VII cases], as well as the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex, persuade us that the time has come to overrule our previous cases that have endeavored to find and observe that line,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote in that decision.

This interpretation of Title VII as encompassing sexual orientation was put forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Obama administration. The Trump administration, however, opposes this interpretation—particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department submitted an unusual brief to that effect in the second circuit case in July and issued a guidance memo in October instructing federal agencies that employers are to be granted the discretion to make hiring decisions based on their religious beliefs, which LGBT advocacy groups quickly decried as a license to discriminate. The administration maintains that LGBT Americans are not protected from discrimination unless Congress enacts a law creating those protections: something the current, Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to do.