The U.S. Supreme Court exercises awesome and virtually unchecked power to shape American life and culture.
Over the past 231 years, decisions rendered by the 110 men and four women justices have both reflected the sentiment of the day and changed the course of history.
This is especially true as it relates to civil rights.
For example, in 1857 the court held in Dred Scott v. Sanford that the Constitution did not extend to African Americans whether they were enslaved or free. That ruling preserved slavery and set the stage for the Civil War.
Thirty-nine years later, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the justices placed their stamp of approval on racial segregation by holding that “separate but equal” was the law of the land. Come 1944, the court again struck another blow against freedom in Korematsu v. United States by upholding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
In each of these cases, the court bowed to public opinion and political pressure and protected the racist-tinged status quo.
By contrast, beginning in the 1950s the justices began to rule against discriminatory laws despite the decisions triggering outrage in segments of the country. In 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, the Court began to undermine the “separate but equal” doctrine. Loving v. Virginia, decided in 1967, ultimately invalidated state laws against interracial marriage, and the 1978’s Bakke decision upheld affirmative action in college admissions.
More recently, the court’s courageous stand in favor of civil rights has extended to issues that impact America’s LGBTQ community. In Lawrence v. Texas (2003) a 6-3 majority struck down state laws that prohibited sodomy between consenting adults. In 2013’s United States v. Windsor the court ruled the federal government must provide benefits to legally married same-sex couples and the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
The court’s extension of civil rights continued this week when a 6-3 majority that included Chief Justice John Roberts Justice Neil Gorsuch held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which holds employers liable when an individual is intentionally fired based on sex, applies to gay and transgender people. The surprising ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County delighted gay rights activists and sparked outrage among conservatives and the religious right.
In his majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch wrote “It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex. An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” Until the Bostock ruling, it was legal for employers in the half the states to fire workers for being gay, bisexual or transgender.
Leaders of faith-based institutions, including a number of religious colleges, expressed concern that they would now be forced to violate their principles and beliefs. While churches themselves are exempt from the provisions of Title VII, religiously-motivated employers do not have the same protection.
Legal experts on both sides of the issue expect the ruling to generate litigation over how far-reaching the extension of Title VII protections will be.
That aside, the Bostock decision once again shines a spotlight on the profound and far-reaching influence the justice system and the courts have and will continue to exert on our daily lives.
— Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to email@example.com.