(Adds quote from ruling, background on case)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, June 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a watershed victory for LGBT rights, ruling that a landmark federal law forbidding workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.
The 6-3 ruling represented the biggest moment for LGBT rights in the United States since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. In the new ruling, the justices decided that gay and transgender people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.
Workplace bias against gay and transgender employees has remained legal in much of the country, with 28 U.S. states lacking comprehensive measures against employment discrimination. The rulings - in two gay rights cases from Georgia and New York and a transgender rights case from Michigan - recognize new worker protections in federal law.
The ruling was authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017. Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, along with the court's four liberal justices, joined Gorsuch's opinion. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the ruling.
Trump's administration had opposed the LGBT workers in the litigation.
The legal fight focused on the definition of "sex" in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, had argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers was inherently based on their sex and consequently was illegal.
Trump's administration and employers accused of discrimination in the cases argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to protect gay and transgender people when it passed the law.
"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," Gorsuch wrote in the ruling. "Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."
The court ruled in two consolidated cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation. One involved a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock. The other involved a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda who died after the litigation began, with the matter then pursued by his estate.
The court also ruled in a case that involved a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens fired by a Detroit funeral home after revealing plans to transition from male to female. Stephens died in May. Stephens' wife Donna is now representing the estate.
Trump's Justice Department reversed the government's position taken under Democratic former President Barack Obama that Title VII covered sexual orientation and gender identity.
Strongly supported by evangelical Christian voters, Trump has taken actions that have undermined gay and transgender rights since taking office in 2017.
Trump's administration last week issued a rule that would lift anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in healthcare.
His administration also has backed the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, banned most transgender service members from the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)
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