Local LGBTQ leaders celebrate Title VII ruling

Advocates say Supreme Court decision is historic for civil rights, but much more work remains to be done.
Legal professionals say Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act still needs to be expanded to specify LGBTQ individuals as a protected class in the state. Photo by iStock

Local LGBTQ advocates have an extra reason to celebrate this Pride Month.

In a 6-3 landmark decision led by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled June 15 that an employer violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it fires or otherwise discriminates against an employee because of the employee’s sexual orientation or transgender status.

The decision was issued in the titular case of Bostock v. Clayton County, in which “Gerald Bostock worked for Clayton County, Georgia, as a child welfare advocate. Under his leadership, the county won national awards for its work. After a decade with the county, Mr. Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Not long after that, influential members of the community allegedly made disparaging comments about Mr. Bostock’s sexual orientation and participation in the league. Soon, he was fired for conduct ‘unbecoming’ a county employee,” the court wrote.

The case also involved appeals from two other lower court cases.

In the second case, plaintiff Donald Zarda “worked as a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express in New York. After several seasons with the company, Mr. Zarda mentioned that he was gay and, days later, was fired,” the court said.

Zarda died in Switzerland in a 2014 base-jumping accident, and the case was continued by his family, according to the Wikipedia summary of the original case, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda.

The third case featured plaintiff Aimee Stephens, who worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in the Detroit suburb of Garden City. “When she got the job, Ms. Stephens presented as a male. But two years into her service with the company, she began treatment for despair and loneliness. Ultimately, clinicians diagnosed her with gender dysphoria and recommended that she begin living as a woman. In her sixth year with the company, Ms. Stephens wrote a letter to her employer explaining that she planned to ‘live and work full-time as a woman’ after she returned from an upcoming vacation. The funeral home fired her before she left, telling her ‘this is not going to work out,’” the court wrote in the ruling.

Stephens died May 12 at the age of 59, a month shy of being able to celebrate the ruling, according to a report from the Detroit Free Press.

For purposes of their appeals, the employers did not dispute the discrimination claims against them as reasons for the employment terminations but argued that “even intentional discrimination against employees based on their homosexual or transgender status is not a basis for Title VII liability,” the ruling said.

The Supreme Court, however, held that such terminations do violate Title VII based on the plain language of the statute. The court said in the ruling, “(a)n employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision; exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Peter Kulas-Dominguez, senior counsel at Warner Norcross + Judd and chair of the State Bar of Michigan LGBTQA Section, said the court’s ruling came as a welcome surprise.

“It is definitely a great victory for the LGBT community, and I don’t want to undercut that by any means, but I also don’t want people to forget that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said, noting that Title VII protections only extend to employment discrimination and not other concerns, such as housing, health care, education, accessibility and “other facets” of life.

Kulas-Dominguez said this is why he believes Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act still needs to be expanded to specify LGBTQ individuals as a protected class in this state. This would have to be done through the Michigan Supreme Court.

In a June 15 statement, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel — who was part of the coalition of 22 attorneys general that filed a brief supporting the interpretation of Title VII to include LGBTQ protections in the Bostock v. Clayton County and other two cases — shared much the same sentiments as Kulas-Dominguez — that more work lies ahead.

“The decision applies only to employment decisions. The court left for another day decisions regarding housing, education, public accommodations and anything else of the kind,” she said. “And it left to future cases how religious liberty doctrines interact with Title VII. What this means is that we must continue to work together for equal protection under the law for all Michiganders,” including amending Elliott-Larsen.

A June 15 statement from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission affirmed it will be tasked with investigating alleged discrimination against any LGBTQ person in the state under the SCOTUS ruling on Title VII.

Thomas Pierce, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, said June 15 was an “awesome” day to celebrate because of the SCOTUS decision.

“With everything going on, between a global pandemic and just watching the news and watching communities struggling and activating, it was something we needed,” he said.

“The past four years have slowly been getting people into this space of hopelessness, like we’re never going to win anything just based on our political climate and the decisions that are made that affect our LGBTQ+ community. This was something our community needed. It’s not everything, but it was one thing that we can say, ‘Okay, we can feel safe at work now to be ourselves, to transition if we need to transition, and to be open in that way,’ which is affirming socially, physically and mentally.”

Pierce said while Grand Rapids in late 2019 passed an expanded human rights ordinance that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and sexual orientation, there are still “subtle workarounds” that result in LGBTQ people being fired from their jobs or denied housing, ostensibly for other reasons, and his organization will continue to fight for more “teeth” in the ordinance so that landlords, property managers and employers are held accountable, especially given the new precedent set by the SCOTUS ruling regarding employment.

The Grand Rapids Pride Center’s work in the employment space will have new energy behind it because of the new Title VII ruling, Pierce said. He said the Pride Center will continue to refer people to and work with groups like Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to bring suit in cases of employment discrimination.

Pierce said he believes the SCOTUS ruling was “amazing and great,” but the community has a lot of work to do on other levels, including understanding and acknowledging the intersectionality of various demographic factors with LGBTQ status, and how those factors contribute to layers of discrimination that can be hard to unravel if only considered one at a time.

Kulas-Dominguez said one of the tangible ways people can contribute in the continuing fight for LGBTQ equality is to first educate themselves and others.

“I always think about what my husband (Carlos Kulas-Dominguez) has to say. He always talks about how the more we know about ourselves and the more we share our experiences, the more we can help grow our community as a whole,” he said.

“A lot of the change that we’ve seen happening over the past couple of decades is because people now have that personal connection — ‘I know somebody who’s gay, my neighbor’s gay, my brother’s gay, or I know somebody that’s transgender’ — so it helps personalize it.

“The more people can get informed about the issues, whether it’s talking to The Grand Rapids Pride Center or reaching out to the ACLU of Michigan — there’s a West Michigan branch here that you can volunteer with and get information on — the more you know about the issues that you can then share with your neighbor, your family and your friends, I think that’s where we’re going to start seeing change. (Change) happens from the grassroots level and works its way up.”

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