Big decisions: Key employment rulings at a glance

Below is a summary of two major U.S. Supreme Court employment rulings regarding LBGTQ employees and the ministerial exception for religious employers from the October 2019 term.

Title VII

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 17-1618

Consolidated with Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, 17-1623, and R.G.& G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 18-107

In each of these cases, an employer allegedly fired a longtime employee for being gay or transgender. Clayton County, Georgia, fired Gerald Bostock for conduct “unbecoming” a county employee after he began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Altitude Express fired Donald Zarda days after he mentioned being gay. And R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes fired Aimee Stephens, who presented as a male when she was hired, after she informed her employer that she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.”

Each employee sued, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The employers did not dispute they fired their LGBTQ employees but argued even intentional discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not prohibited by Title VII.

Finding the gay and transgender workers were subjected to discrimination because of their sex, the court ruled protections for sexual orientation and gender identity are included in Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the 6-3 majority.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented, accusing the majority of legislating from the bench.

Ministerial exception

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 19-267

Consolidated with St. James School v. Biel, 19-348

Two teachers sued their Catholic elementary school employers for discrimination after they were terminated from their jobs. Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School claiming the school replaced her with a younger teacher in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Kristen Biel alleged she was discharged because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment.

Although their job titles did not include the term “minister,” the women educated the students in the Catholic faith and guided them to live in accordance with the religion’s principles.

A 7-2 majority expanded the ministerial exception to cover the teachers. The doctrine enables churches and religious institutions to hire and fire employees without regard to anti-discrimination laws.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito asserted it is not important whether a religious organization calls an employee a “minister” or whether the employee has any formal theological training. “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” he wrote.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas advocated for going further. He argued if a religious organization labels an employee a minister, courts should defer to that designation.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned the majority was taking a “simplistic approach (that) has no basis in law and strips thousands of school-teachers of their legal protections.”

Source: IL Research

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