The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard oral arguments in a trio of cases that could affect millions of Americans who are members of the LGBTQ community.
The cases involve two men who were fired from their jobs as a child welfare coordinator and a skydiving instructor for being gay. The third centers on a woman who was fired from a funeral home because she is transgender.
At issue is a landmark piece of legislation from 1964, the Civil Rights Act. The legislation bans employment discrimination on, among other things, the basis of sex. The question before the high court is whether that includes members of the LGBTQ community.
During oral argument, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who may play a pivotal role in the cases, fretted that a ruling upholding LGBTQ rights might unleash “massive social upheaval.”
Gorsuch’s use of that phrase should concern us. It’s often used by the far-right as a bromide to block any form of progress.
The main objection to Gorsuch’s assertion is that it is demonstrably untrue. Currently, 21 states, the District of Columbia and numerous counties and cities already have laws on the books protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment. In addition, roughly two million full-time federal employees have had these same protections for years. Yet none of these states nor communities has descended into chaos.
Claims of “massive social upheaval” are little more than a bogeyman. They’re pressed into service every time members of a marginalized group seek equality. We heard it from racists who fought civil rights in the Jim Crow South. We heard it from chauvinists during the women’s rights movement. We heard it from religious fundamentalists during the gay rights movement. Most recently, we heard it before and after the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in 2015. To hear the Religious Right tell it, that ruling was supposed to lead to the collapse of the country. We’re still standing. (Our democratic institutions are under stress, but that’s due to the antics of President Donald Trump, not marriage equality.)
Finally, it’s important to remember that humans have certain inherent rights. These are outlined in our Constitution. These rights cannot be yanked away, ignored or put into abeyance because members of one faction don’t want the members of another faction to have them. If the fear of sparking “massive social upheaval” were all it took to take away basic freedoms, we’d never move forward.
Every time we seek to expand rights in America, there’s pushback. And on some occasions, violence does erupt, such as during the civil rights era. But we guarantee them anyway – because it is the right thing to do. Plus, the proper answer to people who refuse to honor the rights of others and resort to violence to try to deny those rights, is to use the existing legal and law enforcement systems to make them stop. We don’t give in to extremists because they’re threatening to go out and riot.
It’s possible that by conjuring up “social upheaval,” Gorsuch was thinking of other issues, such as access to bathrooms. But that question is not before the high court right now. The three cases the justices are contemplating focus on a narrow question: Is it legal under the Civil Rights Act to fire someone for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? It would be manifestly unfair to deny millions of Americans employment protections because of issues that might arise before the court in the future.
Make no mistake: If the Supreme Court stands on the right side of history in these cases, there will be plenty of grumbling from Christian nationalists. But their unhappiness is their own problem, and they will have to deal with it. Remember, these forces have opposed virtually every advance in human rights since the founding of the country. Thankfully, our rights do not hinge on their discontent.
Let’s hope the Supreme Court embraces progress and extends to the LGBTQ community the same protections that millions of Americans already enjoy. But if the high court does not, the American people should be prepared to press for change at the legislative level and make it clear that religious freedom is not an excuse for firing someone.