Aimee Stephens died a month too soon to see the Supreme Court’s surprising landmark ruling in her case, which won protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace.
REDFORD, MI — A month after her death, Aimee Stephens changed America.
Stephens was the Michigan woman at the center of the lawsuit Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC which was decided by the United States Supreme Court. A culmination of an unexpected journey Stephens began when she came out as transgender to her coworkers at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in 2013, the Court affirmed Monday that being fired for being transgender violated Stephens’ constitutional rights.
Though Stephens’ story is a milestone victory for LGBTQ rights, the American Civil Liberties Union told reporters in a Monday press conference that the fight is far from over. They specifically cited ways businesses and federal programs can still discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, brought recently into focus by President Donald Trump rolling back healthcare protections.
Aimee Stephens’ Watershed Victory
Stephens did not set out to become a hero or icon, ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio said after her death. Her name was not even in the short-form title of the case brought from her firing. But there was little doubt from the ACLU press conference Monday morning that the victory was Stephens’ victory.
Stephens’ partner, Donna, spoke to reporters at the ACLU’s virtual press conference. She thanked those who have spent the last seven years fighting alongside them to achieve this outcome.
“There are no words to describe what I’m feeling at this present moment,” Donna Stephens told reporters. “I’m so grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Despite work left to do, the decision in Harris Funeral Homes — the decision Stephens secured — was momentous.
As COURIER noted, the argument the Court made is a watershed moment in LGBTQ rights, acting as a passing of the torch from retired Justice Anthony Kennedy to other conservatives on the Court siding with LGBTQ issues. In fact, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in Harris Funeral Homes, has been directly compared to Kennedy by GQ (though the publication noted that this decision might be an outlier and not an indication of the Court’s direction).
Still, the fury Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, drew from conservatives is a familiar reflection of the anger often drawn by Kennedy. Kennedy was similarly appointed as a conservative justice but took several more liberal stances, making him the Court’s swing vote until his retirement.
Trump seemingly stood by the decision. He told reporters that the decision was “very powerful” and that Americans had to “live with the decision of the Supreme Court.”
Stephens herself did not survive to live with that decision, passing away following a battle with kidney disease in May.
How Harris Funeral Homes Violated Stephens’ Rights
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberal justices, determined that any policy that amounted to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity had, necessarily, to be rooted in a discrimination based on sex, as employees percieved to be different based on sex would be treated differently in regards to their orientation or identity.
“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” wrote Gorsuch in the Court’s opinion. “Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees.
“But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands,” he continued. “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.”
In essence, Gorsuch argued that just because a law was not designed to protect LGBTQ Americans does not mean the law doesn’t protect them. The principles of nondiscrimination baked into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 respecting sex irrevocably include sexual orientation and gender identity, Gorsuch argued.
And just because the position of extending these protections would have been politically unpopular and therefore unintended by the Civil Rights Act, Gorscuh is not convinced those protections should not be extended now.
“…applying protective laws to groups that were politically unpopular at the time of the law’s passage — whether prisoners in the 1990s or homosexual and transgender employees in the 1960s — often may be seen as unexpected,” Gorsuch wrote. “But to refuse enforcement just because of that, because the parties before us happened to be unpopular at the time of the law’s passage, would not only require us to abandon our role as interpreters of statutes; it would tilt the scales of justice in favor of the strong or popular and neglect the promise that all persons are entitled to the benefit of the law’s terms.”
Making that argument, Gorsuch took the unusual act of citing the arguments made against the decision he wrote, pointing to elements of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent to make his argument.
Gorsuch’s argument is substantively similar to the method Fair and Equal Michigan has chosen to extend LGBTQ protections to Michiganders in their proposed ballot initiative.