Editorial: Court’s ruling key advance for equality

The Editorial Advisory Board
October file photo/USA TODAY Network

The decision handed down Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court was a momentous one.

In an opinion based on the plain text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the court barred workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees across the nation. It is no longer legal to fire an LGBT worker simply because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yes, 21 states and a handful of municipalities had passed laws that barred such discrimination. But many did not — including Kansas. As a matter of fact, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt was on the losing side of Monday’s case, and the Kansas Legislature has refused to act on its own.

This was an unacceptable state of affairs for Kansas workers.

It should go without saying that people’s sexual orientation or gender identity has no bearing whatsoever on their ability to do their job. There are gay teachers, firefighters, plumbers, yoga instructors and car mechanics. Who these people are attracted to — who they want to form relationships with — doesn’t affect their ability to teach, fight fires, unclog drains, enhance flexibility or replace timing chains.

Kansans know this. The American people know this. Indeed, making sure that gay people aren’t discriminated against in the workplace is overwhelmingly popular among the public. Many people didn’t know that such discrimination was still allowed.

But LGBT activists knew. As important as the marriage equality movement was, employment protections were always a central part of their struggle for equality. Getting married to the person you love is great. But how can our country then allow your employer to fire you because of that same marriage?

The court arrived at this decision in the simplest of ways. The 1964 Civil Rights act bars discrimination based on sex. Lawyers argued that there is no way to discriminate against gay people without relying on their sex — in other words, whether they’re men or women. After all, a homophobic employer wouldn’t have any problem with a man who wants to date women. But that employer would fire a woman who wants to date women. The core of the discrimination is the sex of the employee.

This also applies straightforwardly to transgender people. If a man can do a job and do it well, what reason would an employer have to fire that man if he transitioned to being a woman? It would be discrimination based on the gender that person became.

There will be questions, no doubt, and religious organizations will want to understand how the new world applies to them. This is always the case with important court rulings.

But the important thing, for now, is that LGBT people — and LGBT Kansans, in particular — can earn a living free from the threat of losing their jobs based on who they are. That’s worth celebrating.