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High Court: Ban On Sex Discrimination Applies To LGBTQ Employees


Seven years ago, Gerald Bostock lost his job. He was a child welfare services coordinator in Clayton County, Ga. He says he was fired after it became known that he played in a gay softball league. Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court vindicated Bostock. Interpreting longstanding law, the court said employers may not discriminate against people for being gay or transgender. Bostock spoke with All Things Considered last night.


GERALD BOSTOCK: This is the moment that has made every step of that seven-year journey worth it. You know, looking back, no regrets, no regrets at all.

INSKEEP: The 1964 Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of sex. The court says that language protects people who identify as gay or transgender. The majority opinion was written by Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of President Trump. So how big is this ruling? NPR's Jeff Brady says the ruling changes the following stark reality.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Nearly five years ago, the Supreme Court made it legal for same-sex couples to marry everywhere. But more than half of states don't offer protection on the job. So a person could legally get married one day and fired the next.

NOEL KOENKE: The justice system is finally seeing and hearing what we have known and suffered all along.

BRADY: Among those celebrating is Noel Koenke. In 2013, she was pursuing her religious calling as a music director at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. She also was preparing to marry another woman. Koenke says she was asked to keep that secret, something that became so painful, she considered suicide. Eventually, she chose living openly over her job.

KOENKE: Having to decide between those two things was so incredibly painful. Even when cleaning out my office - like, I left the things in my - the trunk of my car for a year. I just couldn't even take them out of my car.

BRADY: Saint Joseph's denies Koenke's discrimination claim, saying the school is committed to offering an inclusive environment. Koenke is pursuing her own discrimination lawsuit. Her attorney believes this Supreme Court ruling will make it easier to win that case. The Williams Institute estimates there are 8.1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S. The organization says about half of them live in states with no LGBTQ employment protections, though some municipalities have passed their own ordinances.

ADRIAN SHANKER: We have a patchwork of civil rights laws in Pennsylvania.

BRADY: Adrian Shanker directs the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa. He says that patchwork was difficult because an employee could be open in one place but not in the next town over. He says now everyone everywhere is protected on the job.

SHANKER: I'm thinking about the next generation, the generation of LGBTQ youth who, when they enter the workforce, now it's something that they won't need to think about. They won't need to wonder if they can take a job in a municipality that doesn't have a nondiscrimination law.

BRADY: The future also is on the minds of religious organizations that argued against expanding the definition of sex to include LGBTQ people. They argue the government shouldn't interfere in the decisions of religious employers. Galen Carey with the National Association of Evangelicals points to religious colleges for an example.

GALEN CAREY: There may be concerns that such colleges will either be forced to change their beliefs or possibly face the risk loss of funding, student aid and so on.

BRADY: Carey says it would've been better for Congress to take up the issue of employment discrimination, not the courts. Tim Schultz with the 1st Amendment Partnership says this ruling leaves unanswered questions for employers.

TIM SCHULTZ: These questions of dress codes, locker rooms, bathrooms for transgender employees. The court specifically said, we're not addressing those today. And so those do - those are employment - frequently employment-related questions. And they remain unresolved.

BRADY: Legislation in Congress could address some of these questions. They'll certainly be the subject of future court battles. But for LGBTQ people who've long feared they could be fired, what's most important now is that they finally have basic employment protections.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.