In what is at least the biggest victory for LGBTQ Americans since the 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, last month the Supreme Court held that employers who fire employees for their sexual orientation or gender identity violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
But under what circumstances will religious employers be subject to, and their employees protected by, the rule the Court announced?
Let’s start with the positive. The decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and the two cases consolidated with it arguably expands the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans more broadly than the Court’s previous gay rights decisions. While the Court’s earlier decisions affirmed for LGBTQ people what retired Justice Anthony Kennedy dubbed “equal dignity in the eye of the law,” in practice they benefited LGBTQ people primarily in the context of our romantic, marital, and sexual relationships. Monday’s decision establishes the equality of LGBTQ individuals as individuals, of sexual orientation and gender identity as categories of human personhood.
This should be a time of nearly unalloyed celebration for LGBTQ Americans, our families, friends, and allies. Though we mourn the loss of two of the plaintiffs in the cases, Donald Zarda and Aimee Stephens, who did not survive to see justice done, the decision has far-reaching implications we have waited a long time for. But the Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and the court’s four liberal members, also signaled where the next front in the battle for LGBTQ equality will be drawn.
Religion, as Justice Stephen Breyer commented at October’s oral arguments, “is the elephant in the room.” It was not for nothing that numerous faith-based organizations attempted to sway the Court’s thinking. National evangelical associations and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in on behalf of employers who had fired gay and transgender employees, warning that a decision like the one the Court handed down this week “will trigger open conflict with faith-based employment practices of numerous churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions.” But the Court heard from religious voices on the other side of the spectrum as well, with progressive Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups urging the justices to affirm the God-given equality of all individuals and prohibit discrimination in our increasingly pluralistic society.
Justice Breyer was right about the place of religion in the cases decided in June, because they did not explicitly feature arguments about religious freedom. Title VII does include an exception for religious organizations that wish to make employment decisions on the basis of their employees’ religious beliefs. Over the past 40 years, lower courts and the Supreme Court have added a separate, judge-made exception that, in the name of avoiding First Amendment problems, frees religious institutions from Title VII when it comes to the hiring and firing of those whom the courts deem “ministers.” And, as Justice Gorsuch observed, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might also “supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”
But most objections to the full equality of LGBTQ Americans rest on religious grounds, and so it is not surprising that questions about religion continue to shape the scope of legal protections for LGBTQ citizens.
We will not have to wait long for the next salvo in what has become an ongoing conflict between antidiscrimination laws and assertions about religious freedom.
In May, two Trump administration cabinet departments proposed enabling healthcare providers and homeless shelters to turn away, for reasons of conscience, those who identify as transgender. Later this term—maybe even this week—the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in a second set of discrimination cases. Teachers at two Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles claim they were fired for legally impermissible reasons: one because of a cancer diagnosis that rose to the level of a disability, the other because of age. The schools have argued that because the teachers performed “important religious functions,” they are covered by Title VII’s “ministerial exception” and, therefore, the schools’ employment decisions merit categorical immunity from antidiscrimination laws.
Whether in the context of sexuality, disability, or age, situations like these demand that courts and legislators walk a very narrow tightrope. The success of our pluralistic society requires that we neither ignore sincerely held doctrines religious institutions follow when deciding whom to permit to minister in their name, nor that we defer so blindly to religious institutions that any invocation of faith becomes a shield against laws written to govern everyone, including antidiscrimination laws. It is troubling that, in recent years, some courts and administrative agencies have refused to decide disputes involving religiously affiliated employers, hesitating even to inquire whether they have jurisdiction in individual cases.
The Supreme Court did not need to, and therefore did not, resolve these complex questions in its landmark ruling in Bostock. But the questions keep turning up, in cases involving bakers and photographers, teachers and organists. For the peace of mind of all who work in and patronize institutions with a religious mission, sooner or later the Court will have to decide. Whether that day will also be a day of celebration for LGBTQ Americans remains to be seen.
Patrick Hornbeck is chair and professor of theology at Fordham University, where he is also a JD candidate at Fordham Law School.