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5th Circuit Tosses Challenge to Mississippi HB 1523 on Standing Grounds

Posted on: June 24th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Houston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dissolved a preliminary injunction and dismissed two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of H.B. 1523, a Mississippi law enacted last year intended to assure that people who hold anti-gay or anti-transgender views cannot be subject to any adverse action from their state or local governments.  Barber v. Bryant, 2017 Westlaw 2702075, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 11116 (June 22, 2017).

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, finding that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the law violated their equal protection rights as well as the constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion, issued a preliminary injunction last June 30, so the law, which was to become effective last July 1, has not gone into effect. Ruling on June 22, the panel found that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring this challenge to the law because, in the court’s opinion, none had suffered an individualized injury that would give them the right to challenge the law.

The court was careful to state that because it did not have jurisdiction over the case, it was not expressing an opinion about whether the law was constitutional.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the two cases announced that they would seek “en banc” review by the full 5th Circuit bench and, failing that, would petition the Supreme Court.  The 5th Circuit is a notably conservative bench, however, with only four of the fourteen active judges having been appointed by Democratic presidents.  The three-judge panel that issued this decision consisted entirely of Republican appointees.

Section 2 of the law identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and states that people who act in accord with those beliefs or convictions are protected from “discriminatory” action by the state, such as adverse tax rulings, benefit eligibility, employment decisions, imposition of fines or denial of occupational licenses.  The “religious beliefs or moral convictions” are as follows:  “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

The statute provides further that people who claim to have suffered some adverse action because they act on these beliefs have a right to sue state officials, and to use this law as a defense if they are sued by individuals.

Making its effect more concrete, the statute specifically protects religious organizations that want to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, child placement, and marriages, and protects parents who decide to “raise their foster or adoptive children in accordance” with one of the three listed beliefs. Businesses that provide wedding services are protected against liability for denying such services to LGBTQ people, as are medical and mental health care providers, except for emergency medical situations.  For example, a health care provider cannot interfere with visitation with a patient by their designated representative (who may be a same-sex partner or spouse).  State agencies that license professionals may not refuse to license somebody because they hold or articulate one of the listed beliefs.

The statute also specifically protects “any entity that establishes sex-specific standards for facilities such as locker rooms or restrooms,” and protects state employees who want to voice their beliefs as listed in the statute.  It also specifically allows county clerks and judges to refuse to deal with same-sex couples seeking to marry, so long as arrangements are made to allow such marriages to take place without delay.

To sum up, the statute clearly sought to exempt religious organizations and individuals from having to treat LGBTQ people as equal with everybody else, providing “special rights” to discriminate against LGBTQ people and same-sex couples.  Ironically, because Mississippi law does nothing to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people, many of the applications of this statute are more symbolic than real, at least as far as state law goes.  A Mississippi landlord incurs no state law penalty for refusing to rent a dwelling place to a same-sex couple, for example, and businesses in Mississippi are free to deny goods or services to people who are gay or transgender without incurring any state law penalty.  Few local governments in Mississippi have adopted laws that would be affected, although some educational institutions would clearly be affected, especially by the facilities access provision.

The problem for the plaintiffs, in the eyes of the court of appeals, was that the judges could not see that any of the plaintiffs have the kind of particularized injury to give them standing to sue the state in federal court when this law had not even begun to operate.  The plaintiffs had relied heavily on the argument that the law imposed a stigma, signaling second-class citizenship, and sought to enshrine by statute particular religious views, but the court rejected these arguments as insufficient.

The plaintiffs pointed to cases in which courts had ruled that plaintiffs offended by government-sponsored religious displays had been allowed to challenge them under the 1st Amendment in federal court, but Judge Jerry E. Smith, writing for the panel, rejected this analogy.  The court also rejected taxpayer standing, finding that H.B. 1523 did not authorize expenditures in support of religion.  The court found that by protecting both “religious beliefs and moral convictions,” the legislature had avoided privileging religion, since persons whose anti-gay beliefs were not religiously motivated would be protected from adverse government treatment under this act.  An atheist who believes same-sex marriage is wrong or that sex is immutable would be protected, even if these beliefs had no religious basis.

One plaintiff who based his standing on his intention to marry in the future was rejected by the court, which pointed out that he did not specify when or where he intended to marry.  “He does not allege that he was seeking wedding-related services from a business that would deny him or that he was seeking a marriage license or solemnization from a clerk or judge who would refuse to be involved in such a ceremony, or even that he intended to get married in Mississippi,” wrote Judge Smith.

The court made clear that if anybody actually suffers a concrete injury after the law goes into effect, they could file a new lawsuit and raise their challenge.

 

Federal Court Blocks Implementation Mississippi HB 1523

Posted on: July 1st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

 Just minutes before Mississippi’s anti-LGBT H.B. 1523 was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves filed a 60-page opinion explaining why he was granting a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs in two cases challenging the measure, which he consolidated for this purpose under the name of Barber v. Bryant.

 

                According to Judge Reeves, H.B. 1523 violates both the 1st Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  His lengthy, scholarly opinion expands upon some of the points he made just days earlier when he granted a preliminary injunction in a separate lawsuit, blocking implementation of one provision of H.B. 1523 that allowed local officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses to “recuse” themselves from issuing licenses to same-sex couples based on their “sincere” religious beliefs.

 

                Unlike the earlier ruling, the June 30 opinion treats H.B. 1523 as broadly unconstitutional on its face.  Although Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the lead defendant in all three lawsuits, announced that the state would immediately appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Reeves’ scholarly opinion seemed likely to withstand judicial review.  Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only Democratic statewide elected official and also a named defendant, suggested that he might not be joining in such an appeal, voicing agreement with Reeves’ decision and suggesting that the legislature had “duped” the public by passing an unnecessary bill.  He pointed out that the 1st Amendment already protected clergy from any adverse consequences of refusing to perform same-sex marriages, and that the state’s previously-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act already provides substantial protection for the free exercise rights of Mississippians.

 

                At the heart of H.B. 1523 is its Section 2, which spells out three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” that are entitled, as found by Judge Reeves, to “special legal protection.”  These are “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.”  According to the statute, any person or entity that holds one or more of these beliefs is entitled to be free from any sanction by the government for acting upon them by, for example, denying restroom access to a transgender person or refusing to provide goods or services to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

 

                Of course, the state may not override federal rights and protections, and the plaintiffs argue in these cases that by privileging people whose religious beliefs contradict the federal constitutional and statutory rights of LGBT people, the state of Mississippi has violated its obligation under the 1st Amendment to preserve strict neutrality concerning religion and its obligation under the 14th amendment to afford “equal protection of the law” to LGBT people.

 

                Reeves, who ruled in 2014 that Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, agreed with the plaintiffs as to all of their arguments.   For purposes of granting a preliminary injunction, he did not have to reach an ultimate decision on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.  It would suffice to show that they are “likely” to prevail on the merits.  But anybody reading Reeves’ strongly-worded opinion would have little doubt about his view of the merits.

 

                In an introductory portion of the opinion, he spells out his conclusions succinctly: “The Establishment Clause is violated because persons who hold contrary religious beliefs are unprotected – the State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others.  Showing such favor tells ‘nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” quoting from a Supreme Court decision from 2000, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290.  “And the Equal Protection Clause is violated by H.B. 1523’s authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”

 

                Much of the opinion was devoted to rejecting the state’s arguments that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuits, that the defendants were not liable to suit on these claims, and that injunctive relief was unnecessary because nobody had been injured by the law.  Reeves cut through these arguments with ease.  A major Supreme Court precedent backing up his decision on these points is Romer v. Evans, the 1996 case in which LGBT rights groups won a preliminary injunction against Colorado government officials to prevent Amendment 2 from going into effect.  Amendment 2 was a ballot initiative passed by Colorado voters in 1992 that prevented the state from providing any protection against discrimination for gay people.  The state courts found that the LGBT rights groups could challenge its constitutionality, and it never did go into effect, because the Supreme Court ultimately found that it violated the Equal Protection Clause.

 

                Judge Reeves ended his introductory section with a quote from the Romer v. Evans opinion:  “It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort.”

 

                In his earlier opinion, dealing with the clerk “recusal” provision, Reeves had alluded to Mississippi’s resistance to the Supreme Court’s racial integration rulings from the 1950s and 1960s, and he did so at greater length in this opinion, focusing on how H.B. 1523 was specifically intended by the legislature as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  Mississippi legislators made clear during the consideration of this bill that its intention was to allow government officials and private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people without suffering any adverse consequences, just as the state had earlier sought to empower white citizens of Mississippi to preserve their segregated way of life despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of race discrimination under the 14th Amendment.

 

                Reeves quoted comments by Governor Bryant criticizing Obergefell as having “usurped” the state’s “right to self-governance” and mandating the state to comply with “federal marriage standards – standards that are out of step with the wishes of many in the United States and that are certainly out of step with the majority of Mississippians.”  In a footnote, Reeves observed, “The Governor’s remarks sounded familiar.  In the mid-1950s, Governor J.P. Coleman said that Brown v. Board of Education ‘represents an unwarranted invasion of the rights and powers of the states.’”  Furthermore, “In 1962, before a joint session of the Mississippi Legislature – and to a ‘hero’s reception’ – Governor Ross Barnett was lauded for invoking states’ rights during the battle to integrate the University of Mississippi.”  Reeves also noted how the racial segregationists in the earlier period had invoked religious beliefs as a basis for failing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions.

 

                Turning to the merits of the case, Reeves addressed the state’s argument that the purpose of the statute was to “address the denigration and disfavor religious persons felt in the wake of Obergefell,” and the legislative sponsors presented it as such, as reflected in the bill’s title: “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”  Reeves pointed out what was really going on.  “The title, text, and history of H.B. 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell,” he wrote.  “The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions.  LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were ‘put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres’ to symbolize their second-class status.” (The quotation is from Romer v. Evans.)  “As in Romer, Windsor, and Obergefell,” Reeves continued, “this ‘status-based enactment’ deprived LGBT citizens of equal treatment and equal dignity under the law.”

 

                Because state law in Mississippi does not expressly forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, the state tried to claim that in fact the bill did not have the effect of imposing any new harm.  However, recently the city of Jackson passed an ordinance forbidding such discrimination, and the University of Southern Mississippi also has a non-discrimination policy in place.  “H.B. 1523 would have a chilling effect on Jacksonians and members  of the USM community who seek the protection of their anti-discrimination policies,” wrote Reeves.  “If H.B. 1523 goes into effect, neither the City of Jackson nor USM could discipline or take adverse action against anyone who violated their policies on the basis of a ‘Section 2’ belief.”

 

                The court held that because of the Establishment Clause part of the case, H.B. 1523 was subject to strict scrutiny judicial review, and also pointed out that under Romer v. Evans, anti-LGBT discrimination by the state is unconstitutional unless there is some rational  justification for it.  He rejected the state’s argument that it had a compelling interest to confer special rights upon religious objectors.  “Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise,” he wrote, H.B. 1523 “creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  It is not rationally related to a legitimate end.”  Indeed, he asserted, “The deprivation of equal protection of the laws is H.B. 1523’s very essence.”

 

                Reeves easily found that the standard for ordering preliminary relief had been met.  Not only was it likely that H.B. 1523 would be found unconstitutional in an ultimate ruling in the case, but it was clear that it imposed irreparable harm on LGBT citizens, that a balancing of harms favored the plaintiffs over the defendants, and that the public interest would be served by enjoining operation of H.B. 1523 while the lawsuits continue.  “The State argues that the public interest is served by enforcing its democratically adopted laws,” he wrote.  “The government certainly has a powerful interest in enforcing its laws.  That interest, though, yields when a particular law violates the Constitution.  In such situations the public interest is not disserved by an injunction preventing its implementation.”

 

                Reeves concluded, “Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together.  But H.B. 1523 does not honor that tradition of religious freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.  It must be enjoined.”

 

The current status of transgender legal rights in the U.S.

Posted on: June 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to give a talk at Friday night services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on June 3 about the current status of transgender rights in the U.S.  CBST observes Gay Pride Month with a series of guest speakers on Friday nights, and the first Friday of the month was designated as “Trans Pride Shabbat” this year.  Below is a revised version of the text I prepared for that talk, although on Friday night I left this text in my folder and spoke extemporaneously.

This month we mark the anniversary of a major victory for transgender rights in the U.S. which has generally been overlooked. There was much celebration last June 26 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples were entitled to marry and to have our marriages recognized by state and local governments under the 14th Amendment .  What few mentioned in those celebrations was that this decision implicitly overruled some terrible state court rulings from around the country holding that marriages involving transgender people were invalid under the state bans on same-sex marriage.  By removing any gender requirements for marriage, the Supreme Court was not only opening up marriage nationwide for same-sex couples, it was also making it possible for transgender people to marry the partners they love regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  This would also cancel out any argument that a married person who was transitioning was no longer validly married or should be required to divorce their spouse. However, since every state now has no-fault divorce, of course if such a transition takes place and the couple decides to end their marriage, there would be no impediment under state law to their doing so.

Let’s consider the current legislative status of transgender rights protections in the U.S. As of today, 17 states expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).  Massachusetts prohibits gender identity discrimination in employment and housing, and the legislature is working on adding public accommodations, with the likely approval of the governor.  Most of these laws have specific exemptions for religious institutions, and some of the states also have Religious Freedom statutes that might be interpreted to provide exemptions for businesses whose owners have religious objections, but the question of such exemptions for businesses is not really settled and heavily argued.

Three states prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by statute but not yet gender identity discrimination: New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. In New York, however, the State Division of Human Rights earlier this year published a regulation stating that it interprets the New York Human Rights Law ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination because of gender identity, and the ban on disability discrimination to cover gender dysphoria, thus providing protecting to individuals who have not yet finished transitioning to the gender with which they identify.  That interpretation has not yet been tested in the courts, but it is consistent with some unfolding federal law developments and  also some older decisions by New York trial courts.

In addition, many states have now included specific protection on the basis of gender identity under their Hate Crimes statutes, which authorize enhanced penalties against people who perpetrate violent crimes against people because of their transgender identity. Also, many cities, towns, villages and counties around the country have passed local laws banning gender identity discrimination.  In states that lack such laws, many of the large cities have passed them, although there is a disturbing new trend in some of those states for the state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting localities from going beyond the provisions of the state civil rights laws.  Lawsuits are challenging these limitations.

At the federal level, two statutes, the Matthew Shepard – James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act and the Violence against Women Act, provide for enhanced penalties for those who commit crimes of physical violence against people because of their gender identity, but only when there is some connection to interstate activity.   The interstate activity requirement relates to Congress’s limited power to pass criminal statutes because Article I of the Constitution does not list criminal laws, so federal criminal statues are normally based on Congress’s power to regulate commerce between the states or to enforce other provisions of the Constitution.  In states that do not provide gender identity protection under their hate crimes laws, state prosecutors can refer cases to the US Justice Department, which may prosecute after determining that the crime implicates interstate commerce.  For example, if the weapon used to commit the crime had moved across state lines, or if the crime (such as kidnaping) involved transportation on an interstate highway, the federal Hate Crimes law could come into play.

Congress has not yet approved the Equality Act, which was introduced last year to amend all federal civil rights statutes to list gender identity and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. This would provide protection in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, educational institutions, and all programs that receive federal financial assistance or are operated by federal contractors, and would also cover state government employment and federal employment.  The bill enjoys wide co-sponsorship among Democratic members of both houses, but has only a handful of Republican co-sponsors, and the Republican leadership in both houses has denied committee hearings or votes on the bill, so it cannot be passed unless there is a significant change in the political balance of Congress or in the views of the Republican Party.

The Obama Administration adopted executive orders last year that prohibit federal executive branch agencies and federal contractors from discriminating in employment or provision of services because of gender identity or sexual orientation. These orders are enforced administratively within the executive agencies, not in federal courts.  However, there has been recent activity in Congress placing the federal contractor protections into question.  An impasse between Republicans and Democrats has led to a stalemate over adoption of important pending spending bills and has generated substantial debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, because there are enough Republicans who will vote in favor of this protection (which essentially incorporates the terms of the President’s executive order into legislation) to add it to the pending bills as amendments, but then not enough votes from the Republican majority in the House to pass the resulting amended bills, which are generally opposed by the Democrats because they provide insufficient funding for federal agencies or place objectionable restrictions on the agencies’ actions.  This curious situation has brought the legislative authorization process to a temporary halt, and looms as a potential crisis as we move through this hotly contested congressional election cycle.

There are areas where there is much contention now in legislatures and the courts over transgender discrimination claims asserted under existing sex discrimination laws.   Is it possible that gender identity discrimination is already illegal, even when it is not mentioned as a prohibited ground of discrimination?  This is the hot issue of the day that may reach the Supreme Court next term.

In 1964, Congress considered a Civil Rights Act that was mainly intended to ban race and religious discrimination in employment and public services. However, the employment provision, Title VII, was amended in the House of Representatives to add “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination.  The term “sex” was not defined in the statute, and historical accounts show that the amendment was introduced by a Conservative Virginia representative, possibly as part of a strategy to keep the bill from being passed.  When Title VII went into effect in July 1965, some attempts were made to bring discrimination claims on behalf of gay and transgender people, but they were rejected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency in charge of enforcement of Title VII, and in early decisions by the federal courts.

In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which forbids sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education and courts interpreting Title IX have generally followed the interpretation of “sex” under Title VII.  In early cases they refused to use this statute to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.  Other federal statutes addressing sex discrimination, including the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, also received narrow interpretations of their sex discrimination provisions.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some opponents of that bill complained that it might be hijacked by sexual minorities claiming that homosexuality or transsexuality could be deemed disabilities.  Republican Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina obtained an amendment specifically stating that homosexuality  and “transsexualism” would not be considered disabilities for purposes of protection under this statute.

Interpretation of federal sex discrimination laws began to change after 1989, when the Supreme Court decided an important Title VII case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was denied a partnership at a national accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not adequately feminine in her appearance and conduct.  One said she needed “a course in charm school,” and the head of her office told her she should wear make-up and jewelry and walk, talk and dress more femininely if she wanted to be a partner.  The Supreme Court said that this kind of sexual stereotype was evidence of a discriminatory motive under Title VII, and stated that Congress intended to knock down all such barriers to advancement of women in the workplace, signaling a broad interpretation of sex discrimination.

Over the following two decades, lower federal courts have used the Price Waterhouse decision to adopt a broader interpretation of “sex” under Title VII and other federal sex discrimination provisions. By early in this century federal appeals courts started to extend protection to transgender plaintiffs on the theory that they were suffering discrimination because they failed to conform to sex stereotypes.  Federal circuit and district courts in many different parts of the country have now found gender identity protection in cases under the Violence against Women Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  In an important breakthrough, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that discrimination against a transgender state employee violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, finding that the same standard used for sex discrimination claims should be applied to gender identity claims.

One of the key factors advancing this broad interpretation of sex discrimination was President Obama’s appointment of Chai Feldblum, then a law professor at Georgetown University, to be a commissioner at the EEOC during his first term. (She is now serving a second term at the EEOC.)  Commissioner Feldblum, the first openly lesbian or gay EEOC commissioner, argued effectively that the agency should adopt a broad interpretation of “sex” and apply it to discrimination claims by federal employees.  In three important rulings over the last few years, the EEOC held first that gender identity discrimination claims may be brought under Title VII, then that sexual orientation discrimination claims could also be brought under Title VII, and late last year that Title VII requirs federal agencies to allow transgender employees to use workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Building on these rulings as well as the growing body of federal court rulings, the Justice Department, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies with civil rights enforcement responsibility, have also begun to interpret their statutory sex discrimination laws more broadly.

The EEOC was ruling on internal discrimination claims within the federal government, but the agency has also undertaken an affirmative litigation strategy, filing briefs in cases pending in federal court brought by private litigants against non-governmental employers. In addition, the EEOC has filed its own gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits in federal courts on behalf of individuals who filed charges against employers with that agency.

The Department of Education and the Justice Department have become involved in several cases brought by transgender high school students under Title IX, seeking access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

In a case that drew national attention last year, the Education and Justice Departments represented a transgender high school student in Illinois who was denied appropriate bathroom access and negotiated a settlement with the school district affirming the student’s rights. That attracted a federal court lawsuit against the government by Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing litigation group representing some objecting parents and students.  The lawsuit claims that Title IX does not apply to this situation and that their children’s “fundamental right of bodily privacy” was violated by the terms of the settlement.  It also claims that the Education and Justice Departments did not have authority to adopt this new interpretation of the law without proposing a formal regulation under the procedures established by the Administrative Procedure Act, which include a right of any interested member of the public to challenge a new regulation directly in the federal appeals courts.

This issue burst into wider public discussion when the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an ordinance forbidding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and made clear that transgender people in Charlotte would be allowed to use public and workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity. The ordinance was set to take effect on April 1, 2016.  This stirred up a storm in the North Carolina legislature, which held a special session late in March to pass H.B. 2, a measure that preempted local anti-discrimination laws and provided that in government-operated buildings the restrooms would be strictly segregated by biological sex, meaning, for example, that a person can’t use a women’s restroom unless their birth certificate indicates that they are female.  This would apply to public colleges, universities and schools at all levels and in all other government buildings.

The main focus of debate was Republican legislators’ argument that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms would present a danger to women and children of possible sexual assault by heterosexual men declaring themselves to be transgender in order to gain improper access. The argument is patently ridiculous.  Seventeen states prohibit gender identity discrimination in public facilities, as do several hundred local jurisdictions, but there are no reports that these laws have enabled male sexual predators to gain access to women’s restrooms, and existing criminal laws against public lewdness and sexual assault can easily be used to prosecute such individuals.  In a alternative argument, the opponents of transgender restroom access are now pushing the theory argued in the new Illinois lawsuit: that allowing transgender people into restrooms consistent with their gender identity threatens the “right of bodily privacy” of other users to avoid exposing themselves to the view of transgender people.  Those making this argument reject the proposition that a transgender woman is genuinely a woman and a transgender man is genuinely a man, and argue that there is a tradition of sheltering people in restrooms from the gaze of members of the opposite sex.

A similar rejection of the reality of transgender identity can be found in a law recently passed by the state of Mississippi, which specifically authorizes people whose religious belief rejects transgender identity to refuse to treat transgender people consistent with their gender identity, including in places of business when it comes to things like restroom access. This reverts back to the views that used to be expressed by courts during the 20th century, rejecting the idea of gender transition and insisting that gender must be defined solely by a determination made at someone’s birth and entered on their birth certificate.

North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and the Mississippi law are now both the subject of multiple federal law suits disputing the bodily privacy argument and forcing courts to confront the question whether discrimination against transgender people violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, Title IX and Title VII.  While this dispute was pending, the Obama Administration threatened North Carolina with enforcement action under Title VII and Title IX, and distributed a letter in May to educational administrators nationwide advising them of the requirement to respect the rights of transgender students and staff under Title IX.  The administration’s action attracted new lawsuits, including one filed by the State of Texas on behalf of itself and a dozen other states challenging the administration’s interpretation of Title IX.

Meanwhile, during April the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, ruling in a high school restroom case brought by a transgender boy under Title IX, held that the federal district court should defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of that statute, reversed the district court’s dismissal order, and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.  At the end of May, the full bench of the 4th Circuit rejected the School District’s petition for reconsideration of the case, and on June 7 the school district filed a notice with the 4th Circuit that it plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.   This will probably result in a “stay” of the 4th Circuit’s ruling, which will delay further consideration by the district court of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction so that he can access the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school when classes resume in the fall.

Although legal commentators have suggested that it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case, it is at least possible. The notice the School Board filed focuses on two arguments: that the district court should not defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, and that giving transgender students the restroom access they desire violates the “bodily privacy rights” of other students.  The first argument would require the Supreme Court to overrule a precedent that has been strongly criticized by the Court’s most conservative justices.  The second would require the Court to broaden the right of privacy under the Due Process Clause to encompass a right not to share restroom facilities with transgender people.

We should begin to see decisions in many of the pending lawsuits in the months ahead. One of the complications facing us now in getting a resolution to this controversy is that the Supreme Court is operating with only 8 members since the death of Justice Scalia in February.  Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  This vacancy may lead the Supreme Court to avoid taking for review controversial cases as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, such as the case from Virginia involving the transgender student’s discrimination claim under Title IX.  The court of appeals decision in that case was 2-1. The dissenting judge urged the school district to seek review from the Supreme Court.  Although there might be some delays in getting this issue to the Supreme, it appears likely that the next big LGBT rights case to go to that Court will focus on whether gender identity discrimination is a form of “sex” discrimination that can be challenged under existing sex discrimination statutes and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Is ENDA Necessary? Or Will Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Take Care of LGBT Discrimination

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of the major legislative goals of the LGBT rights movement is to get Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a measure that has been pending in Congress in one form or another since 1996 (with predecessor “gay rights” bills having been introduced since the mid-1970s). ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, but would prohibit only intentional discrimination, not employer practices that are neutral on their face but have the effect of discriminating. It is narrowly drafted legislation, and has a big religious exemption that is controversial. And, although the current version was passed by a comfortable majority in the Senate last year, the Republican leadership in the House has refused to hold hearings or schedule a vote, and strategy for a “discharge petition” (a procedural floor vote to get the bill released from Committee and onto the floor for a vote on enactment) is at an early stage.

But what if ENDA is not needed? What if existing law already bans such discrimination? In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, whose Title VII bans employment discrimination because of sex. For a long time, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the federal courts have ruled that discrimination against LGBT people is not prohibited, because in 1964 Congress did not intend to forbid such discrimination. In effect, Title VII was limited to cases where people were suffering discrimination because they are a man or a woman.

But the Supreme Court came to view “sex discrimination” more broadly, ruling in one case that a woman who suffered discrimination because she failed to conform to gender stereotypes (“too butch”) was a victim of sex discrimination, and in another case that a man who encountered a hostile environment in an all-male workplace (treated by his rougher, tougher co-workers as a sex toy) might also have a valid claim under Title VII. The EEOC and some lower federal courts have taken the next step in recent years, holding that discrimination because of gender identity is a kind of sex discrimination, because it is inspired by discomfort or disapproval with people defying conventional gender roles. There is a recent EEOC formal opinion to that effect, and a growing body of federal court decisions support this view.

But what about lesbians, gay men or bisexuals who are not gender-nonconforming in their appearance or conduct, but who encounter discrimination simply because their employer, co-workers or customers are biased against gay people? Before March 31, there were no court opinions suggesting that such a person might be protected from discrimination under Title VII, although some law review commentators had made the argument. On March 31, however, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly made history by issuing her opinion in Peter J. Terveer v. James H. Billington, Librarian, Library of Congress, 2014 Westlaw 1280301, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43193 (U.S. District Ct., Dist. Columbia), holding that a man who suffered adverse treatment at the hands of an anti-gay supervisor could maintain a claim under Title VII, even though his only gender non-conforming characteristic is his sexual orientation.

According to the court’s opinion, Mr. Terveer was hired in February 2008 to be a Management Analyst in the Auditing Division of the Library of Congress. His first-level supervisor, John Mech, is described in the opinion as “a religious man who was accustomed to making his faith known in the workplace.” According to Terveer’s complaint, Mech said to him on June 24, 2009, that “putting you closer to God is my effort to encourage you to save your worldly behind.” According to the complaint, Terveer became close to Mech and Mech’s family, including his daughter. “In August 2009, Mech’s daughter learned that Plaintiff is homosexual,” wrote Judge Kollar-Kotelly. “Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff received an email from Mech mentioning his daughter and containing photographs of assault weapons along with the tagline ‘Diversity: Let’s Celebrate It.'”

Things went downhill from there. According to the complaint, Mech subjected Terveer to “work-related conversation to the point where it became clear that Mech was targeting Terveer by imposing his conservative Catholic beliefs on Terveer throughout the workday.” Terveer claimed that Mech stopped giving him detailed instructions with his assignments, instead making ambiguous assignments that, in effect, set up Terveer to fail, and assignments that were clearly beyond Terveer’s experience level. Terveer claims he was given one huge assignment that would normally require the attention of half a dozen employees, and then Mech piled additional work on top of that.

Terveer alleged that on June 21, 2010, Mech called an unscheduled meeting that lasted more than an hour, “for the purpose of ‘educating’ Terveer on Hell and that it is a sin to be a homosexual, that homosexuality was wrong, and that Terveer would be going to Hell.” Mech recited Bible verses to Terveer and told him, “I hope you repent because the Bible is very clear about what God does to homosexuals.” A few days later, Terveer received his annual review from Mech, and felt it did not reflect the quality of his work. Terveer believed that the review “was motivated by Mech’s religious beliefs and sexual stereotyping.” Terveer confronted Mech about this unfair treatment, which got Mech angry, vehemently denying that he was partial, and he accused Terveer of trying to “bring down the library.”

Terveer next went to Mech’s supervisor and told him about what was happening. According to Mech’s account of that meeting with Nicholas Christopher, Christopher told him that, in his opinion, “employees do not have rights,” and Christopher took no action to remedy the problem or advise Terveer about appropriate complaint procedures. According to Terveer, Mech’s response to this was to put Terveer under “heightened scrutiny” supervision by Mech and to generate an evaluation of the project to which Terveer had been assigned, even though it wasn’t finished, that was “extremely negative.” Terveer got into an argument with Mech about this evaluation, and Mech told him that he was “damn angry” that Terveer had threatened to bring a claim for wrongful discrimination and harassment. According to Terveer, Mech ended his tirade with the statement, “You do not have rights, this is a dictatorship.”

Early in 2011 Mech issued another negative evaluation of Terveer and put him on 90-day written warning, which could lead to Terveer not receiving the pay increase he would ordinarily receive. Terveer then initiated a discrimination claim with the EEOC. An attempt by another agency officer to get him transferred away from Mech failed when Mech’s supervisor said that Terveer was “on track to be terminated within six months.” As things deteriorated further for Terveer, he finally filed a formal complaint on November 9, 2011, alleging discrimination because of religion and sex, sexual harassment, and reprisal. Terveer had been suffering emotional distress from the situation and ended up taking lots of leave time, ultimately claiming that he was constructively terminated on April 4, 2012, because he could not return to the workplace to confront Mech and Christopher. The Library formally terminated him, and his appeal within the Library’s grievance process was unsuccessful. The agency issued a decision on May 8, 2012, denying his discrimination claims. He filed suit on August 3, 2012, alleging violations of Title VII and the constitution, as well as Library of Congress regulations and policies.

The court faced a variety of legal issues in ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, the most serious of which was the failure of Terveer to pursue various administrative remedies before he resorted to a lawsuit. But perhaps the most important part of the opinion addresses the Defendant’s claim that the facts alleged by Terveer would not suffice for a legal claim of discrimination under Title VII. At the time that the Defendants filed this motion, federal courts had limited protection against discrimination for gay men to situations where a supervisor’s discriminatory conduct was motivated by judgments about a plaintiff’s behavior, demeanor or appearance that failed to conform to sexual stereotypes, and Terveer was not alleging that his behavior or appearance failed to conform to stereotypes about “manly men.”

But Judge Kollar-Kotelly saw Title VII’s protection as broader than these traditional gender stereotyping cases. “Under Title VII,” she wrote, “allegations that an employer is discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s non-conformity with sex stereotypes are sufficient to establish a viable sex discrimination claim. Here, Plaintiff has alleged that he is ‘a homosexual male whose sexual orientation is not consistent with the Defendant’s perception of acceptable gender roles,’ and that his ‘status as a homosexual male did not conform to the Defendant’s gender stereotypes associated with men under Mech’s supervision or at the (Library of Congress),’ and that ‘his orientation as homosexual had removed him from Mech’s preconceived definition of male.'” This, found the judge, was sufficient to meet the burden under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Since Terveer had alleged that the Library had denied him promotions and created a hostile work environment because of his “nonconformity with male sex stereotypes,” Terveer could proceed with his claim.

The judge emphasized that the burden on the plaintiff to state a claim at this stage of the litigation is “relatively low” when a court is deciding a motion to dismiss, before there has been any discovery in the case. Interestingly, the judge found another basis for Terveer’s Title VII claim in the religiously-motivated bias of his supervisor, observing that past courts had allowed claims of discrimination in such cases. “The Court sees no reason to create an exception to these cases for employees who are targeted for religious harassment due to their status as a homosexual individual,” she wrote, refusing to dismiss Terveer’s religious discrimination claim under Title VII. The judge also found that Terveer’s factual allegations would be sufficient grounding for a claim of a “retaliatory hostile work environment.” However, she noted, having found that Terveer’s claims are covered, at least at this early stage in the case, under Title VII, the court would have to dismiss his constitutional due process and equal protection claims, as the Supreme Court has made clear that Title VII is the exclusive remedy for federal employees with discrimination claims that come within its scope.

The bottom line for this ruling was that although certain claims were dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the court refused to dismiss the sex and religious discrimination claims, as well as the retaliation claim. In so doing, the court made history with its acceptance that a gay man who was not gender non-conforming in appearance or behavior could assert a sex discrimination claim when a supervisor’s own religiously-inspired stereotyped notions of proper sex roles motivated adverse treatment of the gay employee.

While such a ruling is most welcome, it would probably be premature to suggest that ENDA is not needed. This is one non-precedential ruling on a pre-trial dismissal motion by a single federal judge. However, it reflects the broadening trend of defining sex under Title VII reflected in the growing body of cases rejecting motions to dismiss such claims brought by transgender plaintiffs, and may portent more definitive rulings expanding Title VII’s sex discrimination ban to claims brought by otherwise-gender-conforming LGBT plaintiffs.

Federal Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Tort Claim by Uganda Gay Group Against American Minister

Posted on: August 15th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor (D. Mass.) has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, against Scott Lively, described in the complaint as an attorney, author, and evangelical minister who has allegedly work to “foment” what the plaintiff alleges to be “an atmosphere of harsh and frightening repression against LGBTI people in Uganda.”  Ponsor found that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to put in play liability under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which authorizes federal courts to adjudicate claims by foreign individuals or entities against U.S. citizens for violations of the “law of nations.”  2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114754 (D. Mass., Aug. 14, 2013).

According to the allegations of the complaint, Lively has visited Uganda several times and met with various private and government officials there and in the U.S., encouraging a compaign to enact harsh criminal laws and impose severe social repression on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual people in Uganda.  He is alleged to have engaged in many of the relevant activities from his home in Massachusetts, including receiving and reviewing proposed legislation and communicating on strategy.  The complaint names specific individuals in Uganda with whom Lively is alleged to have conspired, including the legislative sponsor of the draconian “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.”

The complaint also claims some violations of Massachusetts  law, but the main focus is on the federal claims under the ATS.  The Center for Constitutional Rights represents the plaintiff, an umbrella group for various LGBTI community organizations in Uganda.  According to the complaint, such a case could not be brought against Lively in Uganda due to limitations of Ugandan law.

In moving to dismiss, Lively relied on the rather narrow focus of the ATS, 28 U.S.C. Section 1350,as it has been construed by the Supreme Court and lower federal courts.  The ATS gives federal courts jurisdiction of “any civil action by an alien for tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  Lively argues that nothing he was alleged to have done violates the “law of nations,” that the ATS does not extend to actions taken overseas, that the plaintiff organization lacks standing to bring the case, that the First Amendment shields him from any liability for his advocacy activities, and that the state law claims lack an adequate legal foundation.

Judge Ponsor rejected all of Lively’s arguments.  In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court assumes the truth of the plaintiff’s factual assertions, and then asks whether those facts, if proven, would be sufficient to support the legal claims that the plaintiff is asserting.  Ponsor emphasized that denying the motion to dismiss is not a ruling on the merits, and plaintiffs will have to prove their factual assertions after having a chance to conduct discovery, which would undoubtedly including getting a chance to examine Lively under oath about his activities and to get access to his correspondence with individuals in Uganda.

Most significantly, Ponsor concluded, based on a review of international legal materials, “widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms,” and that a review of “applicable authorities” shows that “aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime against humanity is one of the limited group of international law violations for which the ATS furnishes jurisdiction.”  Ponsor also found that persecution can be considered a crime against humanity if it is “part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.”

“Defendant argues that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity has not been sufficiently recognized under international law to be actionable under the ATS,” wrote Ponsor.  “It is true that many of the international treaties and instruments that provide jurisdiction over crimes against humanity list particular protected groups without specifying LGBTI people,” but “virtually all of these instruments provide savings clauses,” quoting, as an example, the Rome Statute, which, after listing protected characteristics, mentions “other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law” in its definition.  “Even when they do not” list sexual orientation or gender identity, he wrote, “international courts have interpreted the identity of the group requirement broadly to encompass persecution of a discrete identity.”

“Significantly,” he continued, “the boundaries of persecution are almost always defined by those carrying out the persecution against a particular group. . .  This fact strongly argues in favor of a generous interpretation of what groups enjoy protection under international norms,” and he found “unpersuasive” the argument that such international norms would not today be construed to protect LGBTI people from systematic persecution.

Lively argued that because LGBTI people are subject to persecution in many countries, there is no clear international norm against such persecution.  “This argument is utterly specious,” wrote Ponsor, pointing out that Uganda’s highest court has itself ruled that gay and lesbian people are entitled to equal treatment under that country’s law.  “More importantly,” he wrote, “even a glance at the history of treatment of gays and lesbians makes it clear that the discrimination suffered by them is on a par with the treatment meted out to other groups, defined by religion, race, or some other accepted characteristic. . .  The fact that a group continues to be vulnerable to widespread, systematic persecution in some parts of the world simply cannot shield one who commits a crime against humanity from liability.”

In Lively’s case, the court found that the complaint’s allegations were sufficient to invoke jurisdiction under the ATS.  “The allegations feature Defendant’s active involvement in well orchestrated initiatives by legislative and executive branch officials and powerful private parties in Uganda, including elements of the media, to intimidate LGBTI people and to deprive them of their fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, life, liberty and property,” wrote the court, pointing out that jurisdiction had been extended to aiding and abetting such activity as well as those committing direct acts of persecution, referring to various prosecutions in international tribunals beginning with the Nuremburg proceedings after World War II.  In this case, the complaint alleges that Lively provided practical assistance, his role alleged to be “analogous to that of an upper-level manager or leader of a criminal enterprise,” who “participated in formulating the enterprise’s policies and strategies.”  Indeed, the complaint alleges that Lively had himself acknowledged that “his efforts made him instrumental in detonating ‘a nuclear bomb against the “gay” agenda in Uganda.'”

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that ATS has very limited extraterritorial application, but Judge Ponsor found that the allegations in this case were sufficient to meet the Court’s requirement of a nexus with the United States.  Lively is a U.S. citizen, resident in Massachusetts, and the complaint “alleges that the tortious acts committed by Defendant took place to a substantial degree within the United States, over many years, with only infrequent actual visits to Uganda.  The fact that the impact of Defendant’s conduct was felt in Uganda cannot deprive Plaintiff of a claim.  Defendant’s alleged actions in planning and managing a campaign of repression in Uganda from the United States are analogous to a terrorist designing and manufacturing a bomb in this country, which he then mails to Uganda with the intent that it explode there.”

The court found that Plaintiff’s own interests were affected by Lively’s alleged actions, and that Plaintiff also “has associational standing to bring claims on behalf of its members and the LGBTI community for injunctive relief” to prevent Lively from continuing his alleged actions intended to “strip away and/or deprive Plaintiff and LGBTI community in Uganda of their fundamental rights.”

Turning to Lively’s First Amendment argument, Ponsor wrote, “It is well-established that speech that constitutes criminal aiding and abetting is not protected by the First Amendment.  It is equally well supported that the same logic extends to civil actions for aiding and abetting. . .  Plaintiff contends that Defendant’s conduct has gone far beyond mere expression into the realm not only of advocacy of imminent criminal conduct, in this case advocacy of a crime against humanity, but management of actual crimes — repression of free expression through intimidation, false arrests, assaults, and criminalization of peaceful activity and even the status of being gay or lesbian — that no jury could find to enjoy the protection of the First Amendment.”

While “mindful of the chilling effect that can occur when potential tort liability is extended to unpopular opinions that are expressed as part of a public debate on policy,” wrote Ponsor, the complaint “sets out plausible claims to hold Defendant liable for his role in systematic persecution, rather than merely for opinions that Plaintiff finds abhorrent.  The complexion of the case at this stage entitles Plaintiff to discovery and requires the court to deny Defendant’s motion to dismiss.”

Judge Ponsor also concluded that it would be premature to dismiss the state law civil conspiracy and negligence claims in advance of discovery.  The judge referred the case to Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman for a pretrial scheduling conference to set out the schedule for discovery.

The case was first filed in 2012 in the federal district court in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Judge Ponsor, a senior district judge since 2011, is a graduate of Yale Law School. He was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994.