Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in three workplace discrimination lawsuits that could expand federal employment protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Orlando Gonzales, the executive director of the Miami-based LGBTQ-rights organization SAVE, was in Washington, D.C., to join supporters outside the courthouse.
"It really makes you realize how relevant and important decisions are at the Supreme Court level," Gonzales says. "The impact of those decisions ripples across the country and trickle down to the state, county, and local level."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, country of origin, or sex. Many courts have interpreted "sex" to include gender identity and sexual orientation, but it is not explicit in the federal law. At the heart of the Supreme Court's inevitable decision is whether the Civil Rights Act should extend to the LGBTQ community.
Florida is one of 26 states lacking a law protecting LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination, meaning employees can be fired from their jobs simply because they are gay or trans. There's also no rule that prohibits discrimination in housing, service, public accommodations, or even healthcare. An attempt to reform the law and prohibit discrimination — the Florida Competitive Workforce Act — was quashed in 2016. Current legislation in the Florida House would reform the state's Civil Rights Act of 1992 to include sexual orientation and gender identity, but it also provides a backdoor for adhering to the law by keeping religious exceptions.
The only protections for Florida's LGBTQ community come at the local level. For example, Miami-Dade has a countywide ordinance that forbids workplace discrimination.
"Miami-Dade's Human Rights Ordinance has created a safe haven for our community in South Florida," Gonzales says, "but if you take one step out of the county, there are no protections in the state and no protections on the federal level."
Some observers fear that a negative Supreme Court decision could disrupt Miami-Dade's protections. Because decisions on discrimination are made not just at the local level, it could open opportunities to legally challenge Miami-Dade's Human Rights Ordinance. But Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director at Equality Florida, says he believes those arguments would fail in court.
"Miami-Dade's Human Rights Ordinance specifically establishes protections for gender identity and sexual orientation in the law," he says, "but federal law and the Florida Civil Rights Act only provide protections on the basis of sex."
If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of expanding protections for LGBTQ workers, however, Florida employees would stand to benefit.
"A positive ruling from the Supreme Court would quickly expand employment protections in Florida under federal law, and it would have strong implications for how we understand 'on the basis of sex' in the Civil Rights Act," Harris Maurer says.
Two of the cases heard by the Supreme Court involve men who were fired for being gay. Gerald Bostock lost his job as a county government employee in Georgia after joining a gay softball team. Don Zarda, meanwhile, was terminated from his position as a skydiving instructor on Long Island for telling a female customer he was gay.
The Supreme Court also heard the story of Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman fired from a Detroit funeral home after informing her boss she would begin transitioning to her real identity. Hers is the first trans-rights case to reach the Supreme Court, although Dee Farmer was the first trans litigant to appear before the justices in a landmark 1994 prison-rights case.