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Federal Court Ruling on “Religious Exemptions” from Anti-Discrimination Laws on Same-Sex Weddings May Preview Supreme Court Decision

Posted on: September 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota ruled in Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, 2017 WL 4179899, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153014 (D. Minn., Sept. 20, 2017), that for-profit businesses do not enjoy a constitutional right to refuse to provide their services for same-sex weddings on the same basis that they provide services for different-sex weddings.  Turning back a case brought by the anti-gay religious litigation organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Judge Tunheim issued a comprehensive ruling that may provide a preview of what the U.S. Supreme Court will say in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case from Colorado during its forthcoming term, at least regarding the 1st Amendment issues common to both of the cases.

ADF immediately announced that it will appeal the court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Judge Tunheim’s ruling is particularly significant because it is the first by a federal court to address this issue. Since 2013, several state appellate courts have ruling against such exemptions from compliance with state anti-discrimination laws, rejecting appeals by defendants who sought to overturn rulings against them by state human rights agencies in cases involving wedding photographers, florists, bakers, and wedding venues.  In this case, however, a videography business that claimed to be planning to expand into the wedding video business sought an advance declaration from the federal court that they would be constitutionally protected if they were threatened with prosecution under Minnesota’s ban on public accommodations discrimination because of sexual orientation.

This issue has previously avoided litigation in the federal courts because there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination because of sex or sexual orientation by businesses providing goods or services to the public. When “sex” was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination through a floor amendment to the pending Civil Rights Act in Congress in 1964, the amendment was directed solely to the employment discrimination section of the bill.  The public accommodations section was not amended to include “sex”.  The Equality Act bill first introduced in Congress two years ago would add both “sex” and “sexual orientation” to that part of the Civil Rights Act.

The state rulings all came in cases where businesses were being prosecuted under a state law. Because these are local businesses operating in the same jurisdiction where the plaintiffs live, there was no basis for the defendants to remove them to federal court, since the federal constitutional arguments were raised as defenses, and federal “removal” jurisdiction is based either on diversity of citizenship of the parties or a federal question being raised by the plaintiff in the complaint.

This case was brought by ADF on behalf of Carl and Angel Larsen and their company, Telescope Media Group, which specializes in producing videos for a fee. They are interested in expanding their business to include wedding videos.  They strongly oppose same-sex marriage, and one of their goals in expanding their business is to propagate their view that only a marriage between a man and a woman is appropriate by including in every contract they make a provision by which the couple purchasing the video gives Telescope Media the right to provide public access to the video through their website and postings on social media.  Thus, their mission in expanding into the wedding video business is not just to make money but also to promote different-sex marriage, which they consider to be an institution that is endangered by social changes such as the marriage equality movement.  They also want to be able to include a notice on their website that they do not provide video services for same-sex marriages.

The Minnesota public accommodations law was amended in 1993 to add “sexual orientation” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. After Minnesota’s legislature enacted a marriage equality law in 2013, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) published an “interpretive guidance” for businesses covered by the law, stating clearly that the state law “does not exempt individuals, businesses, nonprofits, or the secular business activities of religious entities from non-discrimination laws based on religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.”  The guidance makes clear that people denied services by such businesses could file discrimination charges with the agency, which could result in penalties for violation of the law.

ADF alleged in its complaint that Telescope Media has already been contacted by at least one same-sex couple seeking video services for their wedding, but they were told that Telescope Media does not do wedding videos. This is legal, since they are not discriminating between same-sex and different-sex couples.  They claim they want to get into this potentially lucrative business, but are concerned about exposing themselves to legal liability, and seek the shelter of a declaratory judgment that they are privileged to turn down same-sex wedding business.

ADF came up with seven legal theories in support of their claim to constitutional protection, based on the 1st and 14th Amendments. They claimed that any legal requirement that they must provide services to same-sex couples would violate their rights to freedom of speech, expressive association, free exercise of religion, equal protection of the laws, and both procedural and substantive due process.  Their freedom of speech argument subdivides into the freedom to advertise their wedding video business as available only to different-sex couples, and their freedom not to be compelled to produce wedding videos that celebrate same-sex marriages and thus communicate a message of approval that contradicts their religious-inspired views.  The court rejected their argument that under the Minnesota law they could be compelled to display publicly any same-sex marriage videos that they might produce.

Judge Tunheim carefully and systematically rejected all of their arguments, citing extensively to U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with comparable situations. Before tackling the substantive issues, he had to deal with whether this lawsuit was an attempt to get an advisory opinion, which is beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts.  In this case, the fact that the MDHR has announced in advance its view that declining same-sex marriage business would violate the Human Rights Act helped to convince the court that prosecution of Telescope Media if it implemented its business plan was not merely theoretical.  If they have a constitutional right, the existence of the law and the agency’s intention to enforce it back their claim that they are being deterred from potentially exercising a constitutional right by expanding their business.  Thus, Tunheim rejected the argument by the state’s attorneys that the court had no jurisdiction over the case, since there is a real “case or controversy,” not a purely hypothetical case.

Turning to the merits, however, Judge Tunheim agreed with the growing body of state court appellate decisions that have rejected these constitutional arguments, for all the reasons that have been cited in those cases.

The court found that the MDHR is not a content-based regulation of speech, does not target religion, is subject only to intermediate scrutiny under 1st and 14th Amendment principles, and is sustained by the state’s important interest in preventing discrimination by businesses providing goods and services to the public.

Judge Tunheim rejected ADF’s argument that requiring a business to make wedding videos for same-sex couples if they make them for different-sex couples would violate the prohibition against government-compelled speech.   “Where a business provides a ‘conduit’ that allows others to pay for speech,” as in the case where the business makes an expressive product like a video for monetary compensation, “strict scrutiny is usually unnecessary because there is ‘little risk’ of compelled speech or that the public will attribute the message to that of the speaker,” he wrote.  “Further, courts generally do not find compelled speech where the speaker may easily disclaim the message of its customers.”

“The law does not compel the Larsens to speak a specific government message,” he continued, “unlike the message on the license plate in Wooley or the words of the pledge of allegiance in Barnette,” referring to cases where the Supreme Court held that a state cannot compel a person to display a political message on his license plate or to speak the flag salute against his will.  “The law does not dictate how the Larsens carry out any of their creative decisions regarding filming and editing.  While the law does incidentally require wedding videographers to make videos they might not want to make, the concerns undergirding the application of the compelled speech doctrine to instances of hosting another’s message are immaterial.”

At the heart of his analysis was the simple proposition that “speech-for-hire is commonly understood to reflect the views of the customer. Weddings are expressive events showcasing the messages and preference of the people getting married and attendees, who do things like speak, dress, and decorate in certain ways.  A video of a wedding depicts this expressive event, and while videographers may exercise creative license to fashion such a video, the videographer is a ‘conduit’ for communication of the speech and expression taking place at the wedding.”

Further, he pointed out, the Larsens can always post an announcement on their website stating that they are complying with the law by making videos of same-sex weddings, but that they are opposed to same-sex marriage. This sets their case apart from Hurley, the Supreme Court case holding that Massachusetts could not compel parade organizers to include a gay group if the organizers did not want to send a gay rights message through their parade.  Finally, he pointed out, making wedding videos for same-sex couples would not impede the Larsens’ ability to propagate their own message.  They would not be required to exhibit these videos on their website or place them on social media, as the court found that the MDHR would not be interpreted to impose such a requirement.

The court held that the ability of the MDHR to decide whom to prosecute under the statute did not destroy its content-neutral character, and that requiring Telescope Media to afford equal access to its services for same-sex weddings did not violate its right of expressive association. Indeed, ADF’s argument on this issue would undermine all anti-discrimination laws, were a court to accept the argument that every interaction with a potential customer could be avoided on grounds of “forced association.”  Historically-mind people may recall that then-Professor Robert Bork opposed the public accommodations provisions of the proposed Civil Rights Act in 1964 by describing the proposition that forcing businesses to provide services to people of color as one of “surpassing ugliness” because it would force people into unwanted personal associations.  These sorts of views led to the defeat of Bork’s nomination by President Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1987.

Because the judge found the Minnesota Human Rights Act to be content-neutral as far as religion goes, it easily rejected the idea that evenhanded application of the law would constitute a violation of free exercise, and it similarly rejected the argument that the law imposed an “unconstitutional condition” on the Larsen’s ability to conduct business in Minnesota. Because the law applied to all videography businesses, there was no viable Equal Protection claim.  Similarly, there was no viable procedural due process claim since the law’s prohibition was not unduly vague, and its use of the phrase “legitimate business purposes” to describe circumstances under which a business could refuse to provide a service to a consumer had a well-established legal meaning that would not leave reasonable people guessing as to the scope of their legal obligations.

Finally, having found that the law did not unconstitutionally abridge any of the Larsen’s substantive constitutional rights, the court easily concluded that it did not violate the 14th Amendment’s substantive due process protection for individual liberty. The court found that there is no recognized “fundamental right to work or operate a business free from regulations that one dislikes.  Absent some authority to the contrary, the Court declines to expand the reach of substantive due process to these facts, as the doctrine is ‘reserved for truly egregious and extraordinary cases,’” citing several U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the scope of substantive due process doctrine.

Judge Tunheim found that the state’s attorneys had “met their burden to demonstrate that Counts I-VII in the Amended Complaint all fail as a matter of law,” so there is nothing left to litigate and the court granted the state’s motion to dismiss the complaint.

ADF’s appeal to the 8th Circuit is unlikely to result in a quick decision, because the Supreme Court will soon schedule oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which presents many of the same issues.  This is an appeal of a ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the Cakeshop and its proprietor, Jack Philips, violated the state’s human rights law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious objections to same-sex marriages.  The hearing will probably take place later this year, with a decision expected in the spring of 2018.

The 8th Circuit may decide to follow the same procedure it followed in 2014 and 2015 when it received state appeals from district court marriage equality rulings while a similar case from the 6th Circuit was pending in the Supreme Court. The 8th Circuit put the appeals “on hold” to see what the Supreme Court would do, and then after the Obergefell ruling it simply followed the Supreme Court’s lead, as it would be required to do by precedent.

However, because ADF has alleged various legal theories that were not advanced in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, a Supreme Court ruling in that case may not definitively answer all the questions raised in Telescope Media, so it is possible that the 8th Circuit will find this case different enough to justify going forward without waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling.

 

Federal Court Refuses to Enjoin School District from Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent With Their Gender Identity

Posted on: September 1st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

After rendering a bench ruling in mid-August in anticipation of the approaching resumption of school for the fall semester, U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith released a lengthy opinion (running over 75 pages in LEXIS) on August 25, explaining why he was denying a preliminary injunction motion by plaintiffs in Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137317, 2017 WL 3675418 (E.D. Pa.), in which the plaintiffs, cisgender students and their parents, sought to block the school district’s unwritten policy of allowing transgender students to use bathroom and changing room facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit law firm self-identified with conservative Christian principles which has filed similar lawsuits against other school districts, represents the plaintiffs in arguing that constitutional and common law privacy rights of the students are violated by the school district’s policy. In addition to local attorneys representing the school district, intervenors on behalf of defendants are represented by attorneys from the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project and ACLU of Pennsylvania with cooperating attorneys from Cozen O’Connor’s New York and Philadelphia offices.

This case presents in many respects a mirror image of the lawsuits brought by transgender teens seeking the right to use bathroom and changing facilities at their high schools consistent with their gender identity. In both kinds of cases, testimony is presented that the plaintiffs have suffered emotional and physical harm because the schools’ usage policy interferes with their ability to use a convenient, non-stigmatizing restroom when they need it.  In this case, cisgender students affirmed that they were so traumatized at the prospect of encountering a “student of the other sex” – as they insist on calling transgender students – in the restroom or locker room, that they avoid using the facilities altogether during the school day, and the fear of such encounters haunts them throughout the day.  The court rejected the underlying premise, because Boyertown Area High School (referred to by the acronym BASH throughout the opinion) has provided numerous single-user facilities and alternative locations that would accommodate the plaintiffs’ concerns, and has made physical alterations in the common facilities to enhance the ability of individuals to avoid exposing themselves unclothed (fully or partially) to other students.  The plaintiffs’ position is to argue that transgender boys are really girls, and transgender girls are really boys, and the traditional of sex-segregated restroom and locker-room facilities most be preserved in order to protect the long-recognized privacy interests of cisgender people.  But to the court, the issue for decision in August 2017 had to be based on the facilities available for the upcoming academic year, as to which alterations and additions have changed the situation since the incidents during the 2016-17 school year that gave rise to the lawsuit.

The court sets out the factual allegations in great detail, including findings that this writer – having attended high school in the 1960s – found startling, such as a finding that few of the students at the high school actually use the showers after their gym classes. (When this writer attended high school, showering after gym was mandatory and closely monitored by the coaches, and the required freshman swimming course at his college prohibited students in the class from wearing anything in the pool.)  Another startling finding: that the high school, even before the recent renovations, had several single-user restrooms available to students, and not just in the nurse’s and administrative offices, so that any student seeking absolute privacy for their restroom needs could easily avail themselves of such facilities.

This lawsuit can be traced to several instances during the Fall Semester of 2016 when plaintiffs claim to have been startled, abashed, and disturbed to discover students whom they considered to be of the opposite sex in the locker room or restroom, leading them to approach administrators to complain and subsequently to involve their parents in further complaints. The transgender students were in these facilities after having obtained permission from school administrators who had determined that the students had sufficiently transitioned to make it appropriate. The administrators were determining, on a case-by-case basis, the students in question had transitioned sufficiently that it would have been awkward, unsettling, and perhaps even dangerous to them for them to use facilities consistent with the sex originally noted on their birth certificates.

The evidence presented to the court was that transgender students went through a transitional facilities usage period as they were transitioning in their gender presentation, generally preferring the single-user facilities until their transition was far enough along that they would feel more comfortable using facilities consistent with their gender expression and expected their presence would not cause problems. Indeed, there was testimony that when one transgender boy went into the girls’ restroom, he was chased out by the girls, who perceived him a boy and didn’t want him in there! Because surgical transition is not available under established standards of care before age 18, none of the transgender students at the high school had genital surgery, so their transitions were based on puberty-blocking drugs, hormones, grooming and dress.  One suspects that parents particularly objected to the presence of transgender girls who still had male genitals in the girls’ facilities, but there were no allegations that any transgender girl was exposing male genitals to the view of others in the common facilities.

When the issue arose and the administrators had to respond to a handful of protesting students and parents, they had long since received the “Dear Colleague” letter sent out by the Obama Administration’s Education and Justice Departments in May 2016, which advised that Title IX required public schools to accommodate transgender students by allowing them to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity and presentation. The Boyertown administrators, who did not seek authorization from the school board prior to problems arising, treated that letter as “the law of the land” and informally extended approval on a case-by-case basis to transgender students seeking permission to use appropriate facilities, a phenomenon which began to surface in that school district prior to the 2016 school year.  Not only did they refrain from adopting a formal written policy, but they also refrained from announcing the school’s policy to the student body or parents generally.  Thus, it is not surprising that some students were startled to encounter students who they considered to be of the “wrong sex” in their facilities.  The response of the administrators to the complaints was the this was the school’s policy and the students should just treat the situation as natural and adjust to it, which some students and their parents found unacceptable.

After the issue blew up during the 2016-2017 school year, the board of education voted 6-3 to back up the administrators, but there was still no formal written policy, and the school actually refused a demand by some parents to produce a written policy. Although the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title XI, the substitute letter issued in 2017 did not take a firm position on whether Title IX required such accommodations, merely asserting that the matter required further “study” and should be left to state and local officials to decide.  The Boyertown administrators decided to continue the policy they were following.  This lawsuit was first filed in March 2017, with an amended complaint adding more plaintiffs on April 18.

The complaint asserted claims under the 14th Amendment, Title IX, and Pennsylvania common and statutory law (the Public School Code, which mandates that public schools provide separate facilities for boys and girls).  They claimed a substantive due process violation (privacy), hostile environment sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, and Pennsylvania common law invasion of privacy in violation of public policy.

Judge Smith’s opinion thoroughly dissects the plaintiff’s arguments and carefully distinguishes the cases they cite as precedents, taking the perspective that the issue in deciding the motion for preliminary injunction is whether to preserve the status quo (the school district’s current policy of allowing transgender students, with permission given on a case-by-case basis depending upon their stage of transition and gender presentation, to the use the facilities with which they are comfortable), or to upset the status quo by requiring transgender students to restrict themselves to using single-user facilities or those consistent with their sex as identified at birth. There is a strong bias in considering preliminary injunctions in favor of preserving the status quo, so the plaintiffs had a heavy burden to persuade the court that they were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim in an ultimate ruling, and that the status quo policy inflicted real harm on them that would outweigh the harm that halting the policy would impose on the transgender students and the district.  As to both of those issues, Judge Smith found that plaintiffs had failed to make their case.

In particular, the school’s alteration and expansion of its facilities had significantly undermined the privacy arguments, and the court easily rejected the contention that the possibility of encountering one of about half a dozen transgender students in a high school with well over a thousand students had created a “hostile environment” for cisgender students. The court also noted that the common law privacy precedents concerned situations where the individual defendants had physically invaded the private space of the plaintiffs.  In this case, the individual defendants are school administrators, none of whom had personally invaded the private space of students using restroom and locker room facilities.

Judge Smith devoted a substantial portion of his opinion to recounting expert testimony, presenting a virtual primer on the phenomena of gender identity, gender dysphoria, and transition from a medical and social perspective. The opinion clearly and strongly rejects the plaintiffs’ argument that this case is about boys invading girls’ facilities or vice versa.  The tone and detail of the opinion reflect the considerable progress that has been made in educating courts and the public about these issues.

On the plaintiff’s likelihood of ultimately winning their case on the merits, Judge Smith pointed to the most definitive appellate ruling so far on the contested transgender bathroom issue, a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit involving a lawsuit by Ash Whitaker, a transgender student, against the Kenosha (Wisconsin) school district, which the school district asked the Supreme Court to review, coincidentally on the date that Judge Smith released this opinion.  No other federal circuit appeals court has issued a ruling on the merits of the constitutional and Title VII claims being put forth on this issue, although the 4th Circuit had in 2016 dictated deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County (Virginia) school district, only to have that decision vacated by the Supreme Court last spring after the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter.  That case is still continuing, now focused on a judicial determination of the merits after the filing of an amended complaint by the ACLU.

Because ADF is on a crusade to defeat transgender-friendly facilities policies, it will most likely seek to appeal this denial of injunctive relief to the 3rd Circuit, which has yet to weigh in directly on the issue, although there are conflicting rulings by district courts within the circuit in lawsuits brought by transgender students.  ADF’s first step could be to seek emergency injunctive relief from the Circuit court and, failing that, the Supreme Court (which had during the summer of 2016 granted a stay of the preliminary injunction issued in the Grimm case).  If the Supreme Court grants the Kenosha school district’s petition, as seems likely, the underlying legal issues may be decided during its 2017-18 Term, before the Boyertown case gets to a ruling on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.

Judge Smith was nominated to the district court by President Obama in 2013, winning confirmation from the Senate in 2014. A substantial part of his prior career involved service as a military judge, followed by a period of private practice and then service as a state court judge.  In his Senate confirmation vote he received more votes from Republicans than Democrats.  The Washington Post reported at the time that Smith was the first Obama judicial nominee to win more Republican than Democratic votes.

Supreme Court Will Consider Religious and Free Speech Exemptions to Anti-Discrimination Law in Colorado Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: June 26th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On June 26 the United States Supreme Court granted a petition filed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay “religious” law firm, on behalf of Jack Phillips and his business, Masterpiece Cakeshop, to determine whether the Colorado Court of Appeals correctly denied Phillips’ claim that he is privileged under the 1st Amendment to refuse an order to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111 (cert. granted June 26, 2017).

The petition was filed last July 22, and had been listed for discussion during the Court’s conferences more than a dozen times. The addition of Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to fill a vacancy on the Court was likely the catalyst for a decision to grant review, although it the ultimate disposition of the case could heavily depend on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing justice” on the Court in cases involving LGBT issues.  However, in an interesting twist, one of the main precedents that stands in the way of a victory for Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop is an opinion written in 1990 by Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death led to Gorsuch’s appointment.

The petition asks the Court, in effect, to reverse or narrow its long-standing precedent, Employment Division v. Smith, in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that individuals do not have a constitutional right based on their religious beliefs to refuse to comply with “neutral” state laws of general application. Neutral state laws are those that do not directly concern religious beliefs or practices, but whose application may incidentally affect them.  In response to this decision, both Congress and many state governments have passed statutes allowing persons to claim religious exemptions from complying with statutes under certain circumstances.

The question which the Court will consider, as phrased by ADF in its petition, is: “Whether applying Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel Phillips to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment?”

The Court has addressed the free speech aspects of this issue in the past.  In Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston (1995), the Court ruled that a state’s public accommodation law would have to give way to the 1st Amendment expressive association rights of the organizers of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, who refused to allow an LGBT group to march under its own banner in the parade.  The Court ruled unanimously, in an opinion by Justice David Souter, that a parade is a quintessential expressive activity, and the organizers of the parade have a right to exclude groups whose presence would convey a message that the parade organizers do not wish to convey.

By a bare 5-4 majority, the Court extended that ruling in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the Court, holding that the Boy Scouts of America, like the Boston parade organizers, is an expressive association and could refuse to allow an openly gay man to serve as an assistant scoutmaster because this would communicate to its members and the public a view as to homosexuality that the BSA did not want to communicate.  The ruling sparked two dissenting opinions, sharply contesting the majority’s weighing of rights in allowing the Boy Scouts to discriminate and challenging the view that BSA could be characterized as an “expressive association.”

Interestingly, the winning parties in both of these cases have over time come to see the wisdom of allowing at least some LGBT people to participate in their activities.  The Boston parade organizers have allowed some LGBT groups to participate in their parade in recent years, and BSA voted to allow its local troops to permit participation by LGBT people as members and adult leaders, although troops sponsored by religious organizations have continued to exclude LGBT people in some places.

The Court has yet to return to the religious objection aspect of this case.  A few years ago it refused to review a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court holding that a wedding photographer did not have a 1st Amendment right to refuse to provide her services to a lesbian couple seeking photographic documentation of their commitment ceremony.  Since then, courts in several other states have rejected religious exemption claims by various businesses that provide wedding-related services, including a recent New York ruling refusing a religious exemption to a farm that had hosted and catered weddings.  The more recent Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court held that a closely-held corporation could refuse on religious grounds to cover certain contraceptive methods under its health care plan, was litigated in terms of a statutory exemption provided by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and thus was not grounded on a constitutional claim.

A recent appellate ruling by a Kentucky court, however, upheld the right of a company that makes custom t-shirts to refuse an order from a gay organization for shirts to publicize the organization’s Gay Pride festival.  The 2-1 ruling was premised on the court’s conclusion that the denial of services was not based on the sexual orientation of anybody, but the concurring judge also cited the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, while the dissenter found a clear violation of the a municipal anti-discrimination law and no right to a religious exemption.

In the case granted review by the Supreme Court, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were planning to go out-of-state to marry, because in 2012 Colorado did not yet allow same-sex marriages.  However, they planned to follow up with a celebration near their home in order to more easily involve their family and friends, and went to Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a cake for the occasion.  The owner, Jack Phillips, declined their order, citing his religious objection to same-sex marriage.  When Craig and Mullins publicized this refusal, they were offered a free wedding cake by another bakery which they accepted, but they also decided to file a charge of sexual orientation discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division.  The Division ruled in their favor, approving an administrative law judge’s decision that rejected Phillips’s 1st Amendment defenses of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and found that Phillips had violated the state’s statutory ban on sexual orientation discrimination by businesses.

ADF appealed the administrative ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which rejected both of Phillips’ constitutional arguments.  The court held that baking and decorating a wedding cake is not speech or artistic expression, as Phillips had argued, and that the Commission’s order “merely requires that [Phillips] not discriminate against potential customers in violation of [the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act] and that such conduct, even if compelled by the government, is not sufficiently expressive to warrant First Amendment protections.”  The court deemed the Act to be a “neutral law of generally applicability,” and thus within the scope of the Supreme Court’s Employment Division v. Smith precedent.  Colorado does not have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that could arguably create a statutory exemption to the anti-discrimination statute.

Because the Supreme Court granted review on both the free speech and religious exercise claims, there might result a split decision by the Court.  If it wants to adhere to a broad view of Employment Division v. Smith, it can easily follow the route taken by various state courts that have refused to allow businesses to claim a constitutional religious exemption from complying with anti-discrimination laws.  Or, it could use this case to back away from the Employment Division holding or narrow it in some way.

The Court is unlikely to rule for Phillips on the free speech argument if it sticks with its precedents, since the recognized constitutional exception is for organizations or activities that have a primary or significant expressive purpose. Both Hurley and Dale involved non-profit organizations, not businesses, that were engaged in activities that the Court found (by only a narrow margin in the case of the Boy Scouts) to have strong expressive association claims.  It is unlikely that a business whose primary activity is selling cakes could make a similar claim.  But the Supreme Court can be full of surprises, and there have been significant changes in its membership since these cases were decided.  The Court might bow to the argument by ADF that people of strong religious convictions who wish to incorporate those convictions into their businesses have a right not to be compelled by the government to undertake activities that would express a view contrary to their religious beliefs.  This would potentially tear a big hole in the protection against discrimination provided by the public accommodations laws most of the states, and not just those that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision will be defended before the Supreme Court by the state’s attorneys. Lambda Legal and One Colorado, with cooperating attorneys John McHugh and Anthony Giacomini of Denver-based Reilly Pozner LLP, filed an amicus brief in response to the petition.  Given the wide-ranging interest in the issues underlying this case, it is likely that the Court will receive a mountain of amicus briefs.  Oral argument will be held sometime next winter.

 

4th Circuit Panel Holds Oral Argument in Virginia Marriage Cases

Posted on: May 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

A panel of three judges of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit conducted oral arguments on May 13 in Bostic v. Schaefer, an appeal by two county clerks of a district court decision that held Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The 4th Circuit had previously granted intervenor status on the appeal to the plaintiffs in another pending marriage case, Harris v. Rainey, so both pending federal court challenges to the Virginia ban were heard in this consolidated case.

However, since the state of Virginia has now lined up with the plaintiffs, agreeing that the ban is unconstitutional, the only parties appealing at this point are two county clerks, George E. Schaefer III and Michele McQuigg. They were represented in the arguments by David B. Oakley, a private attorney retained by Mr. Schaefer, and Austin Nimocks, an attorney from the anti-gay litigation firm “Alliance Defending Freedom,” representing Ms. McQuigg.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, who represented the challengers to California Proposition 8 in the case that went to the Supreme Court last year, represents the plaintiffs from the Eastern District of Virginia, Timothy Bostic and Tony London, seeking the right to marry, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley, seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriage. James Esseks, Director of the LGBT Rights Project of the ACLU, represented a class of all same-sex couples in Virginia as certified by the Western District of Virginia district court, but their class representatives are also two same-sex couples, Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff, and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd, also one married seeking recognition and the other seeking to marry.

Since the change in administration in Virginia led to a change in the state’s position, Virginia’s Solicitor General, Stuart A. Raphael, appeared on behalf of the state to urge the court to affirm the ruling by District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen that the Virginia ban violates the 14th Amendment.

Three-judge panels in the 4th Circuit are generated by a computer program to assure random selection, and this was a particularly diverse panel. Presiding as the most senior judge was Paul V. Niemeyer, appointed to the court by President George H.W. Bush. The circuit’s first African-American judge, Roger L. Gregory, was originally appointed to the court by Bill Clinton on a recess appointment late in his administration, and then was renominated by George W. Bush as part of a deal to break the deadlock on Bush’s first circuit court appointments. Finally, Judge Henry F. Floyd was appointed to the circuit court by President Barack Obama. Judge Floyd previously served on the district court by appointment of President George W. Bush, but before his judicial service had been a Democratic state legislator. Sorting out the political backgrounds of the appointees doesn’t get one very far with this panel.

One thing was sure from the outset, however, based on the questioning and comments from the bench. As much as he cautioned counsel and spectators from making assumptions based on his questions, it seemed very clear that Judge Niemeyer was extremely resistant to the idea that the Constitution might compel the state of Virginia to allow same-sex couples to marry. His questioning showed that he viewed the Supreme Court’s decision last June in U.S. v. Windsor, the DOMA case, as being heavily influenced by federalism. Even though Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s decision stated explicitly that the Court was deciding the case based on the 5th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection requirements and not specifically on federalism concerns, Kennedy’s opinion devoted several pages to discussing the traditional role of the states in deciding who can marry and the traditional approach of the federal government to accepting as legal for federal purposes those marriages allowed by the states. Attorneys Oakley and Nimocks both pressed this view repeatedly: that Windsor was really a federalism case, and that it was narrowly focused on the question whether the federal government could refuse to recognize a marriage that a state had decided to recognize.

In the Windsor case, Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer had married in Canada. By the time Spyer passed away in 2009, New York appellate courts were recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state, even though New York did not pass its own marriage equality law until 2011. Windsor was suing for an estate tax refund, arguing that the Internal Revenue Service should have honored New York’s recognition of her marriage, and treat her as a surviving spouse exempt from estate taxes on her inheritance from her wife.

Nimocks hammered the point home by referring to the last paragraph of Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.”

In other words, Nimocks argued, the Windsor case was specifically about the right of the states to decide who could marry and which marriages to recognize, and rejected the authority of the federal government to decree that certain marriages recognized by the state would not be recognized by the federal government. According to Nimocks, Windsor is essentially irrelevant to the question whether the 14th Amendment requires states to allow or recognize same-sex marriages.

Arguing on behalf of the plaintiff couples from Virginia, Olson, Esseks and Raphael emphasized how constitutional doctrine has developed over the course of Supreme Court decisions to the point where the district court’s conclusion in this case was, in Raphael’s words, “ineluctable.” Olson’s argument devolved into rapid back-and-forth statements with Judge Niemeyer, who seemed particularly combative in rejecting the idea that the union of a same-sex couple could be seen as “the same” as a different-sex couple. He insisted that the word “marriage” should not be used for such a couple, because same-sex couples have a “different relationship.” He conceded that the state might want to confer the rights and benefits long associated with marriage on same-sex couples, but stated that this was a decision for the state to make. Although Oakley had focused in his remarks on the significance of Virginia voters having supported the marriage amendment by a clear majority (56%, which is not all that impressive considering the margins by which such amendments were passed in some other states), Niemeyer’s comments didn’t seem to place particular weight on that. He insisted that it was not “particularly useful” to compare the “new relationship” of same-sex unions with heterosexual unions.

The other judge on the panel who gave rather clear signals of his sympathies was Judge Gregory, who particularly hammered Nimocks when he got up to make a rebuttal argument at the end of the allotted hour. Gregory continued questioning well past the flashing red light on the podium, although Judge Niemeyer good-humoredly said they could keep going as long as Gregory had questions.

Nimocks kept coming back to the argument that Virginia had an interest in ensuring that children benefited from “diverse parenting” from a father and a mother, and argued that some right to “genderless” marriage was not entitled to due process protection because it was not historically deeply rooted. Indeed, he appeared to be avoiding referring to a “right to marry,” instead saying over and over again that the right identified by the Supreme Court in the numerous decisions that Olson referred to was the “right to enter into the union of a husband and a wife.” Gregory asked Nimocks about how his concern for the welfare of children played out with the children being raised by same-sex couples, pointing out that same-sex couples can have children and raise children, and he characterized as “disingenuous” Nimock’s purported concern for the welfare of children. There seemed little doubt that Gregory was for affirmance.

So the swing vote on this panel will come from Judge Floyd, and he was relatively silent during the argument by comparison to his two colleagues. However, during Oakley’s opening argument, Floyd made a point of asking about whether the right to marry is an individual right of choice of a marital partner as opposed to a right of couples, and he also particularly focused in during Nimock’s argument about the justification for Virginia refusing to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out of state, especially when children were involved.

Esseks focused on the question of what level of scrutiny the court should use in evaluating Virginia’s ban, arguing that some form of heightened scrutiny should apply, requiring Virginia to justify its discriminatory ban. Niemeyer pushed back on this, pointing out that the Supreme Court has never specifically held that sexual orientation discrimination merits heightened scrutiny, and opining that Windsor is a “difficult opinion to read,” circling back to his opening depiction of it as a federalism case. Esseks responded with a description of the “triggers” for heightened review that the Supreme Court has responded to in various cases, and arguied that several of them applied to the Virginia marriage ban. Perhaps tipping his hand on where his thinking is going, Judge Floyd asked about the approach taken by the Boston-based U.S. Court of Appeals in its DOMA ruling, which involved “careful review” as opposed to “heightened scrutiny.” Ultimately, Esseks argued, the marriage ban would have to fall even under traditional rational basis review, because excluding same-sex couples from marriage didn’t advance any of the policy goals identified by the state.

Solicitor General Raphael provide a strong doctrinal argument, showing how the Supreme Court’s decision over the past several decades had rendered Baker v. Nelson, the Supreme Court’s 1972 dismissal of a same-sex marriage appeal, irrelevant. He also argued, as Olson had argued, that the marriage ban discriminated not only on the basis of sexual orientation but also on the basis of gender, and thus merited heightened scrutiny on that ground. “This is an explicit gender classification,” he said, and cited a prior opinion by Judge Niemeyer for the point that laws using gender classifications should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, which puts the burden on the state to prove that the classification substantially advances an important state interest. But, as Olson had argued, there is no evidence that banning same-sex marriage makes it more likely that different-sex couples will marry and have children.

Raphael also took on the federalism argument. Acknowledging that the Windsor decision devoted substantial attention to the traditional role of the states in defining marriage, he pointed out that the States remain bound by federal constitutional requirements. “The Bill of Rights trumps federalism,” he stated. Of course, this case is about the 14th Amendment, not the Bill of Rights, but his reference was, in the context of the Windsor case, to a provision of the Bill of Rights, the 5th Amendment, which places the same substantive limitations on the federal government that the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to assure full citizenship to the recently-freed slaves, places on the states.

The bottom line? As with last month’s 10th Circuit arguments in the Utah and Oklahoma cases, it appears that at least one member of the panel is predisposed to reverse the district court’s opinion, one member seems clearly disposed to affirm it, and the last is harder to read. However, as with the 10th Circuit, it appeared possible, from reading the tea leaves of questions and comments, that the “swing” voter might swing in favor of invalidating the ban.

However, as Judge Neimeyer said early on, the 4th Circuit is just a “way station” on the way to the Supreme Court. With the Supreme Court’s Utah stay and the subsequent stays placed by district courts and circuit courts on the pro-marriage equality rulings rendered thus far, it is clear that further extension of same-sex marriage rights through the courts will depend, ultimately, not on what the courts of appeals say, but what the Supreme Court says, probably sometime in 2015.