In a landmark 6-3 decision on Monday, the Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ employees from being discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a leading advocate for LGBTQ equality, the fight to ban discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity isn’t over yet.
Although Merkley welcomed Monday’s decision, which was written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, he said it’s long past time for Congress to amend the Civil Rights Act in full to give LGBTQ individuals the same civil rights protections as other Americans.
Merkley was an original co-sponsor of the Equality Act in 2015. The bill, which the Democratic-controlled House passed last year, would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination not only in their employment, but credit, education, housing, federal financial assistance, jury service and public accommodations.
Read Merkley’s interview with HuffPost, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.
What was your reaction when you saw that Gorsuch wrote the opinion? Were you surprised?
Yes, very. I think I’d call it very pleased astonishment. To have a 6-3 vote in our favor and that Gorsuch should write the opinion was not something I anticipated.
This is a big deal, I think we were prepared for this court to not defend LGBTQ rights, so I think it’s really warmed the hearts of advocates across the country. It’s a big win. A big win.
Why do you think the Equality Act is still needed?
This ruling affects Title VII employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, parallel to the bill I introduced in 2013, which passed in the Senate, can you believe seven years ago? Yet discrimination remained legal until this moment. Legal through a majority of states across the country.
Meanwhile, this decision today does not affect Title II, Title III, Title IV, education, public accommodation, jury service, and housing. However, the principle articulated in this decision certainly suggests a similar decision will come in all those other areas, therefore, why should we wait a decade or 15 years to have these things adjudicated? The principle says it’s not fair to have doors slammed in people’s faces ... justice, fairness and equality all demand passing the Equality Act.
How does this change your strategy to move it forward in Congress? Have you heard from any more Republicans willing to sign on as supporters?
I have not heard [from Republicans] although it’s not been very long since we heard the news. I’m not anticipating that we’ll necessarily hear from more Republicans now but I think a new Congress will bring new opportunity for people to reevaluate positions and decide to weigh in.
The Supreme Court opinion just covered employment. Can you speak a little more about what this ruling means for discrimination in other areas, like housing and jury service?
Many people don’t realize housing and credit are covered by three different bills ... The principle of non-discrimination that is present in the Civil Rights Act is present in each of these bills. My concern is that it would take separate legal action under each of those bills, so it’s much better that we address this legislatively and establish equality of opportunity, of access, in all these dimensions.