Monday’s Supreme Court decision prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ employees in the workplace might not have happened without a Virginia segregationist lawmaker’s attempt to insert a ‘booby trap’ into legislation that became the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On February 8, 1964, as the House of Representatives debated passage of the Civil Rights Act, ardent segregationist Howard Smith from Virginia rose to propose changes to four pages of Title VII, the section of the bill barring hiring and firing “because of” race, creed, religion, or color.
“After the word religion, insert sex,” Smith drawled, urging his colleagues to rectify “this grave injustice … particularly in an election year.”
The result was two hours of pandemonium on the House floor, because Smith’s amendment was seen by the frantic pro–civil-rights forces as a poison pill that might put the whole bill at risk.
When Title VII was ultimately passed, just two states in the union—Hawaii and Wisconsin—had laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. Today, 21 states have laws on the books expressly prohibiting discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender, or LGBT, employees in the workplace.
In the end, it was the effort to derail the Civil Rights Act that provided the foundation for Monday’s Supreme Court decision protecting the employment rights of LGBTQ workers across the entire country.