Court ruling increases employment protections for LGBTQ community

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Though a major ruling by the United States Supreme Court – handed down last Monday – will increase employment and discrimination protections for members of the LGBTQ community, the fight to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees from workplace discrimination may not be over.

Writing for the high court’s 6-3 majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender “defies the law.”

The court’s ruling, an expansion of the groups covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1962, said if a person’s sexual identity was part of the reason for the termination of that person’s employment, then that action was illegal.

Tanya Bryant, a director at the Crowe and Dunlevy law firm in Oklahoma City, said the court’s ruling resolved confliction cases in two other appellate court districts. Bryant said conflicting rulings in the 2nd, 9th and 11th federal circuits caused the high court to get involved.

“You have this split in the circuit courts, then the Supreme Court decided to resolve the case,” she said.

Bryant, an expert in employment law, said the court’s action won’t change the employment landscape for many businesses. “There are so many employers that have already included gender identity and sexual orientation in their own polices that for many businesses not much will change,” she said.

But for some groups, such as religious employers, she said challenges remain.

Religious and faith-based employers who make employment decisions based on moral or religious reasons, could be the next battle for federal LGBT protection.

“Those (religious employers) challenges could be very significant,” Bryant said. “I’m sure that they are coming.”

Advocacy groups applauded the court’s ruling, calling it one of the “most important, landmark decisions on LGBTQ rights in a generation.”

On the national level, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce issued a statement saying the organization was elated by the court’s ruling. “The LGBTQ community is a vital part of the American economy and deserves equal treatment under the law,” the group said. “The decision is a step forward for LGBTQ rights in the United States and reminds all of us that the protections for other minority groups, including people of color, the differently-abled, and women, must also be upheld and strengthened.”

In Oklahoma, an advocate for the LBGTQ community said the ruling has done much to protect the rights of the community, but that more work remains to make sure the high court’s ruling is codified in municipal and state laws.

“We knew that win or lose there is still work to be done,” said Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. “We’d like to see the same protections granted in housing law.”

And while Shinn said her organization would love to see the court’s ruling reflected in state statute, she said there hasn’t been the same appetite at the state level for LGBTQ protections.

Instead, she said advocacy groups such as Freedom Oklahoma would concentrate their efforts on municipalities. “We will continue our work there,” she said. “Midwest City, Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa have all taken up protections. We have more work to do on that front.”

Bryant, the attorney, pointed to Norman’s municipal rule as an example. She said any employer who has more than 15 employees is required to follow the federal civil rights act, adding that the best action for most employers is to make sure their policies and handbooks are updated to include prohibitions against harassment and termination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“I would caution against singling out any employee just because of gender identity or sexual orientation,” she said. “There is no reason to do that but there is a reason to update polices and to train folks. That will get the issue out there. Businesses actually need to practice what they have written in policies.”