When it comes to federal case law, LGBTQ+ people have a lot of rights. Statutory law — or the laws made by Congress — are where things get a little foggy. One of the responsibilities of federal courts is to interpret what Congress intended when they wrote a specific law. This should be fairly easy because all you’re doing is reading, right? Wrong. LGBTQ+ individuals fall into a gray category when it comes to whether they have protection under some of these laws, which has caused some trouble recently.
Obergefell v. Hodges was arguably one of the most important cases in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. It was one of the cases that gave LGBTQ+ couples and loved ones hope when it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. A battle started far before with a freedom of speech case, One Inc v. Olesen, which in 1958 decided that writing celebrating gay relationships isn’t automatically obscene. There has been significant headway made in the last decades.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. On October 8, 2019, The Supreme Court heard three cases of LGBTQ+ discrimination, and will now have to determine if sexual orientation and gender identity fall within the walls of Title VII. These recent cases that have arrived within the grasp of The Supreme Court have brought up many questions that I have the hopes of answering in this interview.
I sat down with Michael J. Lambert, an attorney specializing in Media and First Amendment law at Prince Lobel to see how being part of the LGBTQ+ community contributes to his thoughts on these cases.
Before he answered the heavy questions, I needed to know something equally as important. Why should he answer these questions?
Nathan DeJesus: What is your background?
Michael Lambert: I studied journalism in Louisiana. And then I went to law school. And now I represent journalists for a living. So I don't necessarily work in the LGBTQ+ rights or civil rights area. But as a gay person, I follow these cases, and I'm a lawyer, so I have some [amount of] knowledge about it. And I do First Amendment work. So that's civil rights. In a way, it is civil rights.
Why will these cases be important justices-wise?
Justice Kennedy isn't there anymore. And he has historically written the opinions for the gay rights cases. Justice Gorsuch is big on textualism. And textualism is what I referred to before, in which when a court is asked to interpret a statute, you look to the text of the statute, and the text of the statute should be the prevailing interest. So if that theory holds and the justices interpret the Civil Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that way, I'm inclined to think that the court will rule that Title VII does cover LGBTQ+ individuals.
Do you think that whether they rule in favor of the employee or employer there is going to be a ripple effect?
Unfortunately, right now, LGBTQ+ Americans don't have protections under the Civil Rights Act in the employment setting. So if the court decided that that Title VII does not cover LGBTQ+ individuals, then they wouldn't have those rights that others do within the workforce. But I think it also would send a signal to the country that LGBTQ+ rights are not respected. And are not equal. So beyond just settling this particular case in which the question is, does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act cover LGBTQ+ individuals? It kind of sends a signal to the country that we're not treating LGBTQ+ rights the same as we are other civil rights. And I think that would be a shame. If the court rules that Title VII does cover LGBTQ+ individuals, it validates the identities of so many people, even though you shouldn't have to rely on nine people in Washington to validate your identity. And it would send a signal to employers that you can't discriminate. You can't discriminate against somebody because of the sex of the person that they love, or the gender that they identify with. It would certainly send that signal and it would give LGBTQ+ people remedies against employers if they were discriminated against, and because of, who they are.
At the end of the day, this is an interpretation of the statute. The Supreme Court’s ruling may have some pretty small or pretty big effects on how the U.S. will treat queer people in the future. Lambert seems optimistic that the ruling will be in favor of the employees. The results of the cases are set to be announced in June of 2020.