The Supreme Court will decide its first set of LGBT rights cases following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. Kennedy was the architect of the high court’s gay rights jurisprudence.
The justices announced Monday that they will hear three cases asking whether a federal anti-bias law covers gay, lesbian, and transgender workers.
All three disputes involve gay or transgender employees who say they were terminated due to unlawful sex-stereotyping.
The Court’s decision to hear the Title VII disputes marks the first time in the modern period that the justices will hear a LGBT rights case without retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who shaped the nation’s gay rights jurisprudence. Beginning in 1996, Kennedy wrote decisions striking down state laws barring local governments from recognizing gays as a protected class, state bans on sodomy, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Kennedy’s work reached its apex in 2015 when he wrote the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing same-sex marriage across the country.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination based on sex. Between 1979 and 2018 eight federal appeals courts have rejected arguments that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination reaches gays, lesbians, or trans people.
The New York dispute involved a gay skydiving instructor called Donald Zarda who was terminated from Altitude Express Inc. after disclosing his sexual orientation to a client. The client claims that Zarda inappropriately touched her, and that Zarda promptly shared his orientation to assuage her concerns. In turn, Zarda sued the company, arguing his dismissal was motivated by animus in violation of Title VII.
Though a federal trial court dismissed Zarda’s claim, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. Zarda has since died in a BASE jumping incident.
The Michigan dispute involves a Christian funeral home director called Thomas Rost who fired a transgender employee, Aimee Stephens. Rost dismissed Stephens for failing to abide by the company dress code, which requires male employees to wear suits. Stephens identifies as a woman.