The Supreme Court delivered a huge victory for LGBTQ rights Monday. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to help teachers and counselors who were fired by Indianapolis Catholic schools for their sexual orientation.
In a landmark 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination against gay or transgender employees.
“I think it’s a really big deal,” said Suzanne Eckes, an education law professor at Indiana University. “It’s just wonderful news for equity.”
The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices, concluded that the law’s ban on discrimination by sex applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee,” Gorsuch wrote. “We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
The decision resolves a conflict in previous rulings by federal appellate courts: the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Indiana, had ruled that Title VII does provide LGBTQ protections while the 11th Circuit ruled that it does not. It also creates uniform protection nationwide, Eckes said; at least 20 states already bar job discrimination for LGBTQ individuals via state law.
In Indianapolis, it provides support for two Roncalli High School guidance counselors and one Cathedral High School teacher who sued the schools and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after they were fired for being in same-sex marriages.
But as the Supreme Court tore down one hurdle, it could erect another one. It is expected to rule any day on a case that could expand the “ministerial exception,” which says that employees of religious institutions who perform religious duties are not covered by anti-discrimination law.
“On the one hand, this decision is wonderful,” Eckes said. “But we just have to wait and see what happens.”
The ministerial exception applies to any anti-discrimination law, not just laws against sex discrimination, Eckes pointed out. The case before the court involves teachers at two California religious schools; one alleged she was fired for her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment.
Aside from the legal questions, discrimination by religious schools highlights a significant issue of public policy for Indiana. Under the state’s school voucher program, 326 private schools received $172.8 million in 2019-20 in taxpayer-funded tuition assistance. Most of those schools are religious, and many of them discriminate in hiring and student admissions. Cathedral and Roncalli received nearly $3 million in vouchers.
In other words, Indiana doesn’t just allow discrimination in schools; it subsidizes it. Lawmakers should be continuously challenged to justify that policy.