LGBTQ+ Rights Supreme Court Cases

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression may occur in many areas of life, such as employment, housing, or education. Supreme Court decisions involving the rights of the LGBTQ+ community are relatively modern. Most of these cases examine the impact of constitutional principles, such as due process, equal protection, and the First Amendment right to freedom of association. A few interpret federal statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Supreme Court extended LGBTQ+ rights rapidly. A span of less than three decades separates a decision upholding a state law criminalizing homosexual conduct from the decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide. However, the current turn toward conservatism on the Supreme Court may lead to the erosion of protections recently secured.

Few Justices have single-handedly shaped a specific area of law as profoundly as Justice Anthony Kennedy has shaped LGBTQ+ rights. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in five of the most significant Supreme Court decisions affecting this community, four of which were decided in its favor. These are the Romer, Lawrence, Windsor, Obergefell, and Masterpiece Cakeshop decisions.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving LGBTQ+ rights, arranged from newest to oldest.

Bostock v. Clayton County (2020)

Author: Neil Gorsuch

An employer that fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The laws and the Constitution can and sometimes must protect gay persons and gay couples in the exercise of their civil rights, but religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and sometimes protected forms of expression.

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed outside the state.

U.S. v. Windsor (2013)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional in defining “marriage” and “spouse” to exclude lawfully married same-sex couples for the purposes of federal law. Thus, the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses must be available to lawfully married same-sex spouses.

Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013)

Author: John Roberts

Article III standing demands that an actual controversy persist throughout all stages of litigation. More specifically, when a federal court declared unconstitutional a California proposition amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the official proponents of the proposition did not have standing to defend its constitutionality.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to choose to enter upon relationships in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons.

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000)

Author: William Rehnquist

Government actions that unconstitutionally burden the right of expressive association include intruding into a group's internal affairs by forcing it to accept a member whom it does not desire. Such forced membership is unconstitutional if the person's presence significantly affects the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints. (This case involved the expulsion of a gay scoutmaster from the Boy Scouts.)

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (1998)

Author: Antonin Scalia

Sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII.

Romer v. Evans (1996)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Equal Protection Clause does not permit a status-based classification of persons undertaken for its own sake. Thus, a state constitutional amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause when it precluded all legislative, executive, or judicial action at any level of state or local government designed to protect the status of persons based on their homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices, or relationships.

Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc. (1995)

Author: David Souter

A state may not require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message that the organizers do not wish to convey.

Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)

Author: Byron White

The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right on homosexuals to engage in sodomy. Any claim that prior Supreme Court cases involving family relationships, marriage, or procreation stand for the proposition that any kind of private sexual conduct between consenting adults is constitutionally insulated from state proscription is unsupportable.