If the average Vermonter were to have been asked a week ago whether a business had the right to fire an employee for being gay or transgender, most would have answered no, thinking the issue had been settled long ago. But until Monday, it was legal in more than half the states to fire workers for being gay, transgender or bisexual. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that such actions were discriminatory and against the law.
Vermont is not a state that allows such discrimination, but we forget how far along we are on the equal rights landscape, and, conversely, how far behind others are. We fought the gay marriage battle long ago. Two years ago we had a transgender person — Christine Hallquist — run for governor carrying the Democratic Party’s banner. What were once issues are no longer, or much less so.
But the culture wars continue to burn elsewhere, and to them, Monday’s ruling was a complete shock. Conservatives have a 5-4 majority on the court and the open bet was that the court would rule in favor of the status quo.
Not only did the liberals prevail, but conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, nominated for the court by President Trump, wrote the majority opinion, and he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts. In sum, the court ruled that the discrimination protections guaranteed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The ruling has deeply shocked, and offended, conservative Christian groups, who, generally, continue to operate under the belief that sex should only be between a woman and a man who are married. These groups are reviewing the court’s decision, concerned it will apply to their hiring practices as well. They had expected the court’s conservatives to protect them.
The concern was articulated by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez: “I am deeply concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively redefined the legal meaning of ‘sex’ in our nation’s civil rights law. This is an injustice that will have implications in many areas of life. Protecting our neighbors from unjust discrimination does not require redefining human nature.”
Monday’s decision guarantees that the next culture wars battle will be by religious conservatives who contest Monday’s ruling as it applies to religious freedom and the organizations directly affected. It’s understood from the get-go that the conflict will be explosive and drawn-out.
That is counter-intuitive to most Vermonters. As one of the most secular states in the nation, the thought here is that time will wear down the opposition and people will adjust to their surroundings. Eventually, they will see that the tides still roll in and that the world hasn’t tipped on its side. But that is not the case with traditional evangelicals and Catholics, who hold tightly to their traditional ethics. These are the people who took solace in President Trump being able to appoint two new Supreme Court justices — Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Gorsuch ended up on the other side and even Kavanaugh wrote a side note to the dissent acknowledging “the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans.”
Little wonder the nation’s religious conservatives are in a panic. But it makes you thankful that even a conservative U.S. Supreme Court is understanding enough to extend the protection of the law to those in need of that protection. While that is a given in Vermont, it’s encouraging to see there is a fighting chance a majority of the otherwise conservative court has an open mind when it comes to this social justice issue.
by Emerson Lynn