The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal protections against workplace discrimination apply equally to sexual orientation, contrary to the position taken by the administration of President Donald Trump.
The landmark decision said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination against employees because of a person's sex, also covers sexual orientation and transgender status.
"Today we must decide whether someone can be fired simply for being homosexual or transgender," the court said. "The answer is clear."
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights (LGBT) activists, as well as Democratic politicians and several major businesses had been demanding that the court spell out that the community was protected by the law.
"This is a huge victory for LGBTQ equality," said James Esseks, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBTQ & HIV Project.
"The court has caught up to the majority of our country, which already knows that discriminating against LGBTQ people is both unfair and against the law," he said in a statement.
Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York state, concurred on Twitter."This #SCOTUS decision is a major victory for #LGBTQ rights," he said
"No one should be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity," he added.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage to be legal, a landmark victory for the LGBTQ community.
But rights activists feared that the appointment by Trump of two new conservative judges to the top court could hinder further wins for their cause.
Yet it was one of them, Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority decision, joining with the court's four progressive judges and Chief Justice John Roberts.
"An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids," Gorsuch wrote.
The ruling was a blow for the Trump administration, which had effectively thrown in its lot with employers.
"Sex refers to whether you were born woman or man, not your sexual orientation or gender identity," argued Solicitor General Noel Francisco, representing the government's position before the court. He said it is the job of Congress to update the law, not the justice system.
That position was echoed by Brett Kavanaugh, the other conservative judge appointed by Trump.
Despite his opposition, Kavanaugh wrote in his own separate dissent that the decision still represented an "important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans."
Donna Stephens, the wife of transgender plaintiff Aimee Stephens who died last month, hailed her late partner's struggle for justice after being sacked by a Detroit funeral parlor when she came out.
"For the last seven years of Aimes's life, she rose as a leader who fought against discrimination against transgender people, starting when she was fired for coming out as a woman, despite her recent promotion at the time.
"I am grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," she said in a statement after the court pronounced its ruling.
US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch in February 2019 shaking hands with US President Donald Trump: Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion banning employers from firing LGBT employees on the basis of their sexual orientation