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General Motors Co. is among more than 200 corporations that joined a new legal brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law bans job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In a separate filing, former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Schwartz and Michigan GOP operative Greg McNeilly signed onto a brief with more than 30 high-profile Republicans, telling the court that the "plain language" of the law protects against discrimination toward gay or transgender workers.

Both briefs include a Michigan case to be argued this fall before the justices involving R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which fired an employee in 2013 after she announced she was transitioning from male to female.  

The funeral home, which asked the high court to hear the case, has argued that an appeals court ruling that sided with the transgender employee, Aimee Stephens, last year "threatens freedom of conscience." 

The businesses' brief, announced Tuesday by a coalition of five LGBTQ rights groups, is being submitted to the Supreme Court this week ahead of oral arguments before the justices on Oct. 8 on three cases that may determine whether gays, lesbians and transgender people are protected from discrimination by existing federal civil rights laws.

Among the other 206 corporations endorsing the brief were Amazon, American Airlines, Bank of America, Ben & Jerry’s, Coca-Cola, Domino’s Pizza, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Nike, Starbucks, Viacom, the Walt Disney Co. and Xerox. Two major league baseball teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Tampa Bay Rays, were included.

In the brief, the companies argued that a uniform federal rule is needed to protect LGBTQ employees equally in all 50 states.

“Even where companies voluntarily implement policies to prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, such policies are not a substitute for the force of law,” the brief argued.

“Nor is the patchwork of incomplete state or local laws sufficient protection – for example, they cannot account for the cross-state mobility requirements of the modern workforce.”

The Republican brief — which includes sitting U.S. Reps. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Carlos Curbelo of Florida — argues that "basic principles of textualism" resolve the cases.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 

"Both textualism and precedent accordingly command that Title VII’s words be applied to mean what they say: It is unlawful for an employee’s sex to contribute to an employer’s decision to discharge or otherwise discriminate against the employee," the brief says.

"Yet that is exactly what happened in all three cases on review. ... in all three cases, an employee was fired for attractions or actions that his or her employer would have tolerated for members of another sex. Plainly, the employees were discharged because of their sex." 

Schwartz represented Michigan's 7th District in Congress from 2005-07. He served as a Republican but now identifies as independent.

McNeilly, an adviser to the powerful DeVos family in West Michigan and a prominent gay Republican, served as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 2003-05. 

Federal appeals courts in Chicago and New York have ruled recently that gay and lesbian employees are entitled to protection from discrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati has extended similar protections for transgender people in the Michigan case involving Stephens.

The question now is whether the Supreme Court will follow suit, given its conservative majority strengthened by President Donald Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The three cases are the court’s first on LGBTQ rights since the retirement last year of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored landmark gay rights opinions.

The Obama administration had supported treating LGBTQ discrimination claims as sex discrimination, but the Trump administration has changed course. The Trump Justice Department has argued that the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not intended to provide protections to gay or transgender workers.

The companies signing the brief represent more than 7 million employees and $5 trillion in annual revenue, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest of the LGBTQ rights groups organizing the initiative. Other organizers included Lambda Legal, Out Leadership, Out and Equal, and Freedom for All Americans.

“At this critical moment in the fight for LGBTQ equality, these leading businesses are sending a clear message to the Supreme Court that LGBTQ people should, like their fellow Americans, continue to be protected from discrimination,” said Jay Brown, a Human Rights Campaign vice president.

“These employers know firsthand that protecting the LGBTQ community is both good for business and the right thing to do.”

In Stephens' case, the 6th Circuit ruled that her firing constituted sex discrimination under federal law.

R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes contends that Congress was not considering transgender people when it included sex discrimination in the civil rights law, arguing that the 6th Circuit attempted to rewrite the statue by replacing "sex” with “gender identity."

In another one of the cases heading to the Supreme Court, the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a gay skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

The appeals court ruled that “sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex and is thus a subset of sex discrimination.”

The ruling was a victory for the relatives of Donald Zarda, now deceased, who was fired in 2010 from a skydiving job that required him to strap himself tightly to clients so they could jump in tandem from an airplane. He tried to put a woman with whom he was jumping at ease by explaining that he was gay. The school fired Zarda after the woman’s boyfriend called to complain.

The third case is from Georgia, where the federal appeals court ruled against a gay employee of Clayton County, in the Atlanta suburbs. Gerald Bostock claimed he was fired in 2013 because he is gay. The county argues that Bostock was let go because of the results of a financial audit.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Bostock’s claim in an opinion noting the court was bound by a 1979 decision that held “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.”

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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