Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Words Not Frozen in Time

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that firing someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, as is any such discrimination occurring in the workplace. Surprisingly, six of the nine justices supported the ruling — including Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts, whose views are typically conservative — and Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion.

This ruling comes as a positive and much-needed sign amidst a long discouraging political climate, particularly the Trump administration’s pushback against transgender rights. While this case only applies to workplace discrimination, it does affirm LGBTQ rights, advancing them with this as precedent for the next case.

What I find fascinating about this case was how the court assessed the core question. The justices were asked to decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to gay and transgender people. Title VII of that law prohibits workplace discrimination for race, religion, national origin or sex. The court’s ruling says “sex,” as used in the law, does apply to gay and transgender workers.

Justice Gorsuch’s argument and logic make sense:

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… It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.

Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito argued that in 1964, when the law was passed,

Discrimination “because of sex” was not understood as having anything to do with discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status… Any such notion would have clashed in spectacular fashion with the societal norms of the day.”

I find this to be true, certainly his statement about the societal norms in 1964. It’s highly unlikely anyone in Congress was thinking of advancing gay or transgender rights when the bill was drafted and passed. If any were, they were prophetic.

What’s amazing is this ruling shows, once again, that language is not frozen in time. While its meaning may not literally change, the meaning adapts to the time. While virtually no one in 1964 thought Title VII encompassed sexual orientation or gender identity, Gorsuch’s logic is convincing: the language does apply.

Just as the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence apply to all, even as the nation’s founders excluded slaves when writing those words arguing for independence from Britain.

The brilliance of this irony is that our words often mean more than we realize. With time and grace, we can live into them.

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