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Michigan woman helps win gay, transgender worker rights in Supreme Court

LANSING—One month after her death, Aimee Stephens of Michigan on Monday helped secure a major civil rights victory for gay and transgender workers across the country. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a historic 6-3 opinion that guarantees antidiscrimination protections in employment, ruled in favor of Stephens and two other plaintiffs who had been fired from jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

An employer who fires someone “merely for being gay or transgender” violates the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation's highest court said in an opinion authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch. That law has long prohibited discrimination based on “sex” — i.e., bias or animus toward a woman or man. Until now, the nation’s highest court did not explicitly extend the law’s prohibition against sex discrimination to include protections for gay and transgender workers. 

“An 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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.” 

Stephens was fired from Detroit’s R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes in 2013 after telling the company, where she worked for six years while presenting as a male, that she intended to “live and work full-time as a woman.” She died of complications from liver failure at her Redford home on May 12, one month and three days before the Supreme Court would rule in her favor.

“The last seven years of Amy's life, she rose as a leader who fought against discrimination against transgender people,” her wife, Donna Stephens, told reporters Monday in a press call with the American Civil Liberties Union.  “I’m so grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee and to assure people are treated fairly, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Monday’s ruling is arguably the court’s biggest decision on gay rights since 2015, when justices held that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marriage. Michigan played a key role in that case as well. April DeBoer and Jane Rowse of Hazel Park were among the plaintiffs and had been represented by Dana Nessel, who is now the state’s attorney general. 

“I never thought I could be more overjoyed by a SCOTUS opinion involving LGBTQ rights than I was 5 years ago when I was granted the right to marry my wife and for my children to have 2 legal parents,” Nessel wrote Monday on Twitter.  “Today is a very close second.”

The Supreme Court decision validates a 2018 interpretation by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which held that bias against gay and transgender residents was already illegal under a prohibition against “sex” discrimination. 

That interpretation allowed the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to begin investigating employment complaints, but Republican legislators have challenged the commission’s authority and civil rights groups have continued to push for additional anti-discriminiation protections. 

A group called Fair and Equal Michigan is collecting petition signatures for initiated legislation that would expand state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and places of public accomodation. The group had initially aimed to make the 2020 ballot but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and is now considering 2022

“Our legal counsel is analyzing the decision now and will be advising us on how it will impact people in the state of Michigan and our campaign moving forward,” organizers said Monday in a statement released over social media. The group called the Supreme Court ruling “great news for the #LGBTQ+ community across the country!”

ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio described Monday’s ruling as part of a larger and ongoing “struggle” but said the decision “will save lives.”

"I'm so devastated that Aimee and Don didn't live to see it,” Strangio said, referencing Stephens and fellow plaintiff Donald Zarda, who died in 2014. He had previously been fired as a skydiving instructor in New York after mentioning he was gay.

They “didn't live to see that their trauma, that what they suffered, led to being a sweeping affirmation of LGBTQ rights for everyone in the country."

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito accused his colleagues of legislating from the bench, making changes to a statute that Congress itself had declined to adopt despite numerous proposals over the past 45 years. 

"Many will applaud today’s decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court’s updating of Title VII," Alito wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. "But the question in these cases is not whether discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity should be outlawed. The question is whether Congress did that in 1964."

In his majority opinion, Gorsuch also acknowledged that lawmakers who adopted the civil rights law “might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. But they also probably did not know the law would be used to protect women from discrimination based on motherhood and ban sexual harassment of male employees,” Gorsuch wrote.

“The limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands,” he said in his ruling. “When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Gorsuch in the majority opinion. Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored his own dissent and opposed the ruling, along with Alito and Thomas.

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