WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court grappled at times on Tuesday with historic cases that could impact millions of LGBTQ Americans.

  • Supreme Court hearing arguments in LGBTQ workplace rights hearing
  • Federal government, Florida don't have laws protecting these rights
  • Extending LGBTQ workplace protections long fought in Florida

Justices are now tasked with answering whether federal law allows someone to be fired from their job based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identification.

The cases were filed by Aimee Stephens, the state of Donald Zarda, and Gerald Bostock.

Bostock says he was fired in 2013 after joining a gay softball team.

“It happened so quickly,” Bostock said. “I was called into the Court Administrator’s Office and promptly handed my termination paperwork and escorted off the property.”

Aimee Stephens says she was fired from her job in 2013 from a Garden City, Michigan funeral home after telling her boss she was transitioning from male to female.

Focus of Case

The focus of the case is on the meaning of “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

John Bursch, an attorney for Stephens’ former employer Harris Funeral Homes, said after the hearing Tuesday that the law is clear.

“It bars discrimination on the basis of sex, that’s what the statute says,” Bursch said. “Sex, sexual orientation, and transgender are very different contexts. We know that because Congress has added transgender identity and sex orientation in other statutes, but they have declined to offer them as amendments to Title VII, and the court should not be in the business of creating new words in statutes where Congress did not add them, or Americans and businesses can never rely on what the law says,” Bursch explained.

Stephens’ case specifically comes down to a mandated dress code at her job based upon gender.

Attorneys for both sides made their arguments in front of a divided judicial bench that has seen a considerable shift in recent years to a more conservative leaving.

It is not clear whether one of the five conservative justices will remain in the opinion of the majority, or align with the four liberal justices.

“It has to serve as a wakeup call, because in 2015 we were all lulled to sleep,” said Brandon Wolf, an Orlando LGBTQ activist and member of Equality Florida. “The Supreme Court (in 2015) ruled we could get married to who we love, we had a president and vice president who would happily wear rainbows and wave flags and light the White House up in rainbow colors and so we got complacent… we forgot how quickly the tide can turn.”

Extending workplace protections to those who are LGBTQ has long been fought in Florida.

Fighting for Protections in Florida

“In the state of Florida, what a lot of people don’t realize is you can be fired from your job, denied public accommodations or public housing simply for being gay or transgender,” said State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who represents Orlando, and the first openly gay Latino elected to the Florida Legislature.

Lawmakers have tried for the better part of a decade to pass some form of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The proposal again stalled in 2019, but Guillermo Smith is hopeful there is enough support to finally pass the measure through the Legislature during the 2020 session via Senate Bill 206 and House Bill 161.

The Williams Institute at the University of California estimates 7.1 million American workers identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; and another 1 million workers identify as transgender.

The federal government and state of Florida do not have laws enacted that specifically provide LGBTQ protections in the workplace, while 22 states, as well as the District of Columbia, do have statutes protecting employees based on sexual orientation.

DeSantis Criticism

Florida’s freshman Republican governor Ron DeSantis faced immediate criticism from LGBTQ supporters when he signed an executive order in January. The executive order doubled-downed on anti-discrimination policies in the state workforce, but specifically left out LGBTQ.

DeSantis later dismissed the criticism, saying state employees are hired based on their merit.

DeSantis later faced criticism again in June when he left out specific mentions of Florida’s LGBTQ and Hispanic communities in a Pulse Remembrance proclamation. He later issued an updated proclamation including the two references, blaming staff error for the omission.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business on the issue of discrimination that Governor Ron DeSantis can play a direct role in,” State Rep. Guillermo Smith said.

Guillermo Smith played a crucial role in helping DeSantis visit Pulse nightclub June 12, 2019, on the third anniversary of the attack that killed 49 people. DeSantis became the first sitting governor of Florida to make a visit to Pulse.

“I was really encouraged when Gov. DeSantis and I got to have a conversation at Pulse, and we talked about this exchange, this dialogue that would be on going from that moment,” Brandon Wolf said. “I encouraged him, I told him LGBTQ Floridians have been looking to have a voice at the table for a long time, this community, the Pulse community has been dying to have a seat in the conversation since it happened in 2016, and we’ve not had leaders willing to do that, and I hope this is the beginning of true

DeSantis’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: As part of a special series covering Orlando’s Pride Week, Spectrum News is looking at the progress in civil rights made by the LGBTQ community and the changes happening from within local government. Watch those stories throughout this week on Spectrum News.