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Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Seeks Reversal of His Old Court’s Opinion

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

On June 30, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision from June 2015 did not necessarily require state and local governments to treat same-sex and different-sex marriages the same for government employee benefits purposes. On September 15, asserting that his old court’s decision was clearly wrong, retired Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace B. Jefferson and lawyers from his Austin firm, Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.

Jefferson, an African-American Republican, was appointed to the court in 2001 by Governor Rick Perry, who then elevated him in 2004 to the Chief Justice position, where he served until retirement in October 2013. Justice Jefferson was the first African-American to serve on Texas’s highest court.  His law firm was retained by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to represent the City in petitioning the Supreme Court for review.

The case arose in 2013 when then-Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian and longtime LGBT rights activist, reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act by asking her City Attorney whether the reasoning of that case would require the City of Houston to recognize same-sex marriages of City employees. Although Texas did not allow same-sex marriages then, some City employees had gone out of state to marry and were seeking health care benefits for their spouses under the City’s employee benefits plan.  Parker got the answer she was seeking and ordered an extension of benefits to City employees’ same-sex spouses.

Two local Republican activists, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, sued the City and Mayor Parker, seeking an injunction against extension of the benefits. They persuaded a state trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction, barring the benefits from going into effect pending the outcome of the litigation.  The court relied on the Texas constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which had not yet been challenged in court as of that time.  The City appealed the preliminary injunction.

While the appeal was pending before the Texas Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which is based in Houston, promptly affirmed a 2014 marriage equality ruling by the federal district court in San Antonio, DeLeon v. Abbott, declaring unconstitutional the Texas same-sex marriage bans that had been the basis for the trial court’s injunction. Then the Texas Court of Appeals issued a ruling reversing the trial court’s preliminary injunction and instructing that court to decide the case consistent with the DeLeon decision.  Pidgeon and Hicks appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

 

After extensively considering the matter, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it would deny review of the Court of Appeals ruling. This outraged Texas Republican leaders, including Governor Abbott, and the state Republican Party went to work encouraging people to bombard the court with communications urging it to reconsider and grant review, and then to reverse the court of appeals.  Perhaps it is not surprising, considering the very political nature of that court, made up entirely of Republican justices (since Texas has not had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994), that the court succumbed to these demands, reconsidered, and granted review.

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Pavan v. Smith, a challenge to the refusal by Arkansas officials to list both members of married lesbian couples on birth certificates when one of them gave birth to a child through donor insemination. In that ruling, the Supreme Court made abundantly clear that the Obergefell decision had effectively decided the Pavan case by holding that same-sex couples had the same constitutional rights regarding marriage as different sex couples, extending to the entire “constellation of rights” that went with marriage.  The Supreme Court did not even bother to hold oral argument in the Pavan case, simultaneously granting the petition to review an adverse decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court and issuing a brief memorandum opinion, from which three members of the Court dissented in an argumentative and disingenuous memorandum attributed to recently-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch and signed by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.  The Pavan opinion left no doubt that same-sex and different-sex married couples must be treated the same by government entities under the 14th Amendment.

But it was evidently not clear to a majority of the Texas Supreme Court, which just days later issued its ruling, reversing the court of appeals and sending the case back to the trial court in Houston, with instructions to give Pidgeon and Hicks an opportunity to try to convince the court that the City of Houston was still required to refuse recognition to the marriages of same-sex couples under its benefits plan, relying on the Texas constitutional and statutory ban that was declared unconstitutional by the 5th Circuit. A majority of the Texas Supreme Court clings to the idea that constitutional rulings by the lower federal courts are not binding on the Texas state courts.    The Texas court suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell could be interpreted narrowly to address solely the question whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry and must recognize same-sex marriages contracted from out of state, but that the Obergefell opinion said nothing directly about what rights must be accorded to same-sex married couples.  This is, as Justice Jefferson’s Petition to the Supreme Court makes clear, blatantly untrue.  It treats the Pavan ruling as if Justice Gorsuch’s dissent was speaking for the Court.

Justice Jefferson’s Petition on behalf of Mayor Turner and the City of Houston makes mincemeat out of the work product of his former colleagues, quoting clear language from Obergefell which, among other things, specifically mentioned health insurance as an example of how the denial of marriage to same-sex couples violated their fundamental right to marry and to be treated equally with different-sex couples.

This case is just as clear as Pavan was, and is likely to receive the same treatment from the U.S. Supreme Court, unless that Court finds some procedural or jurisdictional reason to dismiss the Petition without deciding the question presented by the petitioners: “Did the Supreme Court of Texas correctly decide that Obergefell v. Hodges and Pavan v. Smith ‘did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,’ regardless of whether their marriages are same-sex or opposite-sex?” Some have suggested that because the Texas Supreme Court was ruling only on the validity of a preliminary injunction, the matter is not procedurally ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review, but any attempt to reinstate the preliminary injunction would directly violate the constitutional rights of Houston City employees in clear violation of the Obergefell ruling.

On a parallel track, Lambda Legal filed a federal district court lawsuit in Houston over the summer on behalf of some married LGBT City employees, seeking a declaratory judgment that they are entitled to the same benefits for their spouses that their straight colleagues get. If the Supreme Court does not grant Justice Jefferson’s Petition, it is likely that the matter can be resolved relatively quickly through Lambda’s case, since the City would eagerly comply with an order by the U.S. District Court to provide equal benefits.  This is, at heart, a dispute between the pro-LGBT Houston Democratic city government and the anti-LGBT Republican state government.

 

 

Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to Spousal Benefits for Houston City Employees

Posted on: June 30th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a clear misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling from 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, especially as elucidated just days ago by that Court in Pavan v. Smith, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously refused on June 30 to dismiss a lawsuit by two disgruntled Houston taxpayers who argue that the city of Houston may not provide employee benefits for the same-sex spouses of its employees. The case is Pidgeon v. Turner, 2017 Tex. LEXIS 654.

Instead, while affirming a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals that had reversed the preliminary injunction that a Texas trial court issued in 2014 against payment of the benefits, the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for it to decide whether the Obergefell decision obligates Houston to provide equal benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, and also to consider the taxpayers’ argument that the city should be required to “claw back” the value of benefits that were paid prior to the Obergefell decision, on the theory that Texas’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out-of-state was valid until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was announced.

In Pavan v. Smith, the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that the Obergefell decision did not require the state to treat same-sex spouses the same as different-sex spouses for listing as a parent on the birth certificate of a child born to their spouse. Reversing that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said: “As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”

Thus, the Supreme Court made clear in Pavan, contrary to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s unduly narrow reading of Obergefell, that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits of marriage as different-sex couples. In listing some of the rights and benefits of marriage that same-sex couples had wrongly been denied, the Obergefell court specifically mentioned health insurance, an employee benefit that is at issue in the Texas case.  Thus, to claim that the Obergefell opinion fails to deal with this issue explicitly is totally disingenuous.

And yet, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd wrote for the Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner, “The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and – unlike the Fifth Circuit in DeLeon – it did not hold that the Texas DOMAs are unconstitutional.” “DeLeon” refers to the Texas marriage equality decision that was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit a few days after the Obergefell decision, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional in light of Obergefell.

Instead of cutting through procedural complications and saving everybody involved lots of wasted time and money through prolonged litigation, the Texas court has now repeated the error of the Arkansas Supreme Court by insisting that the Obergefell ruling does not clearly require “the same” rights, benefits and responsibilities, and, incredibly, cited in support of this point the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to grant review of a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, which concerns a totally different question: whether a baker has a 1st Amendment right to discriminate against a same-sex couple by refusing an order for a wedding cake in violation of a state anti-discrimination law.  The Supreme Court did not address in Obergefell the question of reconciling a potential clash between anti-discrimination laws and the rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech enjoyed by non-governmental entities and individuals.  But the Court most emphatically did address the issue that governmental actors, bound by the 14th Amendment, must accord the same rights to all married couples, whether same-sex or different-sex, and it reiterated that point in Pavan.

The Texas case dates back to 2013, when Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian, reacted to the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees who had gone out of state to get married. At the time, Texas had both a state Defense of Marriage Act and a similar constitutional amendment, and Houston had a charter provision limiting municipal employee benefits to legal spouses and children of employees.  Relying on an advisory opinion from the city attorney, Parker concluded that after Windsor it was unconstitutional to refuse to recognize those out-of-state marriages.

Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, Houston taxpayers who identified themselves as devout Christians who did not want their tax money going to subsidize same-sex marriages, filed a lawsuit challenging the benefits extension in December 2013, and refiled in October 2014 after the first case was dismissed for “want of prosecution” while the parties were wrangling about the city’s attempt to remove the case to federal court. Pidgeon and Hicks claimed, based on state and city law, that the benefits extension was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity.”  They persuaded a local trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction against continued payment of the benefits while the case was pending, and the city appealed.

The Texas Court of Appeals sat on the appeal while marriage equality litigation proceeded both in the federal courts in Texas – the DeLeon v. Perry case – and nationally. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, the 5th Circuit, affirming a federal district court ruling, held in DeLeon that the Texas laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

Then the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s preliminary injunction in the Pidgeon case and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to decide the case “consistent with DeLeon.” Pidgeon and Hicks sought to appeal this ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but were initially turned down by that court.  Then the top Republican elected officials in the state – the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general – and a bunch of other non-parties filed papers with the Supreme Court urging it to change its mind and allow the appeal, which the court eventually agreed to do.

In its June 30 ruling, the court buried itself in procedural complications. Based on its incorrect conclusion that the Obergefell decision, as amplified by the Pavan ruling, does not decide the merits of this case, and further giving credence to the plaintiffs’ argument that Obergefell cannot be construed to have any retroactive effect because “the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was attributing a new meaning to the Fourteenth Amendment based on ‘new insights and societal understandings,”  the court opined that Pidgeon and Hicks should have an opportunity to “develop” their argument before the trial court.  This contention on retroactivity is not the view that has been taken by other courts, including some that have retroactively applied Obergefell to find that cohabiting same-sex couples in states that still have a common law marriage doctrine can be held to have been legally married prior to that ruling.  Indeed, the federal government even gave Windsor retroactive application, allowing same-sex couples to file for tax refunds for earlier years on the basis that the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to recognize their state-law marriages under DOMA had been unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Pidgeon that the Texas Court of Appeals should not have directed the trial court to rule “consistent with DeLeon” because, technically, the state trial courts are not bound by constitutional rulings of the federal courts of appeals, only by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on questions of federal law. DeLeon could be a “persuasive” precedent, but not a “binding” precedent.  This merits a big “so what?”  After all, the real question in this case is whether Obergefell requires that married same-sex couples are entitled to the “same benefits” as different-sex couples from their municipal employer, and the answer to that could not be more clear, especially after Pavan v. Smith.  (Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion in Pavan repeats the same mistaken assertion — that Obergefell does not clearly require the “same” rights and benefits which the Court responds to by quoting from Obergefell to the opposite effect – and is just as disingenuous as Justice Boyd’s decision for the Texas court.)

Now the case goes back to the trial court in Houston, where the outcome should be dictated by Pavan v. Smith and Obergefell and the court should dismiss this case. But, since this is taking place in Texas, where contempt for federal law is openly expressed by public officials, who knows how it will turn out?

Same-Sex Marriage Looms for Taiwan after Constitutional Court Ruling

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

The Constitutional Court of the Republic of China (Taiwan) voted overwhelmingly that same-sex couples are entitled to marry, and that anti-gay discrimination violates the Republic’s Constitution. The May 24 ruling was greeted with relative equanimity by legislative leaders, who were ordered by the court to approve legislation to implement this decision by May 24, 2019.  Otherwise, the court said, the decision would go into effect automatically, and same-sex couples would be entitled to marry.  Only two justices dissented, and one abstained.  Press reports we saw differed as to whether the court has 14 or 15 members.  Either way, the majority was overwhelming.

This was the first ruling by an Asian high court to accept marriage equality as a constitutional right, although there might be political and ideological arguments about its significance in relation to the rest of Asia due to the unusual status of Taiwan, which the Peoples’ Republic of China (Mainland China) considers to be part of its country that is just temporarily self-governing and most countries do not recognize it as an independent nation. However, there is no disputing that when this ruling goes into effect, Taiwan will be the first place where same-sex marriages can be performed in Asia with the imprimatur of legally-recognized status.

The opinion, formally called Interpretation No. 748, was released only in Chinese, but the court simultaneously issued an English-language press release summarizing the ruling in detail.

The court was responding to petitions from LGBT rights activist Chia-Wei Chi and the Taipei City Government, seeking a definitive ruling on whether the freedom to marry, protected by Article 22 of the Constitution, was limited by the provisions of Chapter 2 on Marriage of Part IV on Family of the Civil Code, which defines marriage as exclusively a different-sex institution. The court also had to confront the question whether excluding same-sex couples from marriage violated the “people’s right to equality” guaranteed in Article 7 of the constitution.

The court found that both constitutional guarantees – the right to marry and the right to equality – were violated by the ban on same-sex marriage.

The court observed that the petitioner, Chia-Wei Chi, has been waging a campaign for same-sex marriage for more than thirty years. Although some progress had been made in getting the legislature to consider the issue, after more than ten years of bills being introduced and debated, nothing has been brought to a vote.  The court expressed concern about the frustration induced by this protracted legislative process.  “The representative body is to enact or revise the relevant laws in due time,” said the court.  “Nevertheless, the timetable for such legislative solution is hardly predictable now and yet these petitions involve the protection of people’s fundamental rights.  It is the constitutional duty of this Court to render a binding judicial decision, in time, on issues concerning the safeguarding of constitutional basic values such as the protection of peoples’ constitutional rights and the free democratic constitutional order.”

The court said that the freedom to marry extends both to deciding whether to marry and whom to marry. “Such decisional autonomy is vital to the sound development of personality and safeguarding of human dignity, and therefore is a fundamental right.”  The court insisted that allowing same-sex couples to marry “will not affect the application of the Marriage Chapter to the union of two persons of the opposite sex” and that it would not “alter the social order established upon the existing opposite-sex marriage.”  The court said that the failure of current law to allow same-sex couples to marry “is obviously a gross legislative flaw” and that the current provisions “are incompatible with the spirit and meaning of the freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 of the Constitution.”

Moving to the equality issue, the court addressed the problem that Article 7, unlike the United States’ equal protection clause, explicitly requires equality “irrespective of sex, religion, class, or party affiliation,” but the court did not see this list as a barrier to protecting equality for gay people (or, it added, people with disabilities). They said that the classifications listed in Article 7 “are only exemplified, neither enumerated nor exhausted.”  In other words, this is a list of “including but not limited to” classifications, and the court saw sexual orientation as a classification governed by the same equality principle.

“Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic that is resistant to change,” wrote the court. “The contributing factors to sexual orientation may include physical and psychological elements, living experience, and the social environment.  Major medical associations have stated that homosexuality is not a disease.  In our country, homosexuals were once denied by social tradition and custom in the past.  As a result, they have long been locked in the closet and suffered various forms of de facto or de jure exclusion or discrimination.  Besides, homosexuals, because of the demographic structure, have been a discrete and insular minority in the society.  Impacted by stereotypes, they have been among those lacking political power for a long time, unable to overturn their legally disadvantaged status through ordinary democratic process.  Accordingly, in determining the constitutionality of different treatment based on sexual orientation, a heightened standard shall be applied.”  This appears to be the equivalent of the U.S. legal concept of a “suspect classification,” one deemed illegitimate in the absence of good justification.

The court rejected any idea that reproductive capacity has anything to do with the freedom to marry, pointing out that different-sex couples may marry even if they are incapable of procreation or unwilling to engage in procreative activities. “Disallowing two persons of the same sex to marry, for the sake of their inability to reproduce, is a different treatment having no apparent rational basis,” wrote the court.  It also rejected the kind of moralistic arguments that are raised by marriage equality opponents, concluding, “Disallowing two persons of the same sex to marry, for the sake of safeguarding basic ethical orders, is a different treatment, also obviously having no rational basis.  Such different treatment is incompatible with the spirit and meaning of the right to equality as protected by Article 7 of the Constitution.”

While the court gave the government two years to make the necessary legislative adjustments to carry out this ruling, it warned that failure to do so would not prevent the decision from going into effect. Upon the two-year anniversary, if not sooner, same-sex couples will be entitled to apply for marriage registration to the usual authorities and to “be accorded the status of a legally recognized couple, and then enjoy the rights and bear the obligations arising on couples.”

Without being able to read and understand the original Chinese text, it is hard to assess whether the ruling leaves much leeway to the legislature to consider alternatives to true marriage equality. In Europe, for example, the Court of Human Rights has been willing to allow countries to adopt registered partnerships or civil unions rather than extending explicit marriage rights to same-sex couples, although that is likely to change as the number of countries having voluntarily legislated for marriage equality has grown to encompass several of the largest countries who are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights.  However, the clear import of the English summary is that same-sex marriages would have to include all the usual legal rights accompanying opposite-sex marriages to meet the equality test the court embraced, in a more explicit way than the U.S. Supreme Court did in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

The local English-language press in Taiwan reported that none of the major parties responded with opposition to the ruling, which was quickly embraced by Premier Lin Chuan, who “ordered Chen Mei-ling, secretary-general of the Executive Yuan, to coordinate the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and other branches to draft the revision proposal,” according to Cabinet spokesman Hsu Kuo-yung. The cabinet will approve a proposal to submit to the legislature. The two options that seem available are a bill amending existing laws to accommodate same-sex marriages, or a separate same-sex marriage bill.  In terms of timing, it seems possible that marriage equality will go into effect sooner than two years.  Although the current legislative session ends by May 31, the legislature will reconvene for some special sessions during July and August and will resume its regular session thereafter.

Appeals Courts Issue New LGBT-Related Rulings

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

Several appellate courts have issued significant LGBT-related rulings in recent days. Here is a brief summary of the new developments.

Roy Moore Loses Reinstatement Appeal before “Alabama Supreme Court”

The Alabama Supreme Court normally consists of seven justices elected by the people of the state, but when Roy Moore, who was suspended as chief justice by order of the state’s Court of the Judiciary on September 30, 2016, sought to exercise his right to appeal that ruling to the state’s Supreme Court, all of the other justices recused themselves. What to do?

The Supreme Court invoked a special procedure to authorize the Acting Chief Justice (who was appointed to occupy Moore’s seat for the duration of his elective term) to “participate” with then-Governor Bentley (who has since resigned because of a sex scandal) to create a substitute supreme court to consider Moore’s appeal. They assembled a list of all the retired judges in the state who were deemed “capable of service,” then conducted a lottery to compile a list of fifty potential judges, with the first seven names drawn to make up this special substitute version of the court unless one or more recused themselves or were disqualified for some other reason, in which case they would go back to the list of 50 until they had a full bench.

Moore was suspended because of his activities in opposition to marriage equality. After U.S. District Judge Callie Granade ruled on January 23, 2015, that the Alabama Marriage Amendment and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act, both of which prohibited formation or recognition of same-sex marriages, were unconstitutional, Moore sprang into action.  He undertook various efforts to block implementation of Judge Granade’s order by denouncing it as illegitimate, then encouraging and later directing the state’s probate judges to refrain from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  As chief justice, Moore both presided over the Supreme Court and acted as the administrative head of the state court system, in which capacity he could issue directives to lower court judges.

As the marriage equality issue rose through the courts to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, finding a federal constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, Moore remained outspokenly opposed, making every effort both publicly and behind the scenes to stave off the evil day when same-sex marriage might be fully accepted in Alabama. Although he recused himself from some of the Supreme Court’s actions after having issued his initial public denunciations of Granade’s rulings, he ultimately decided to participate in the court’s decision in 2016 to dismiss all pending proceedings and allow the probate judges to do their duty. But Moore wrote separately from the rest of the court, first to justify his decision not to recuse himself despite his prior actions and public statements, and then to inveigh against the federal constitutional ruling, reiterating his view that Alabama was entitled as a sovereign state to reject federal interference with its marriage laws.

This led to allegations that he was violating several provisions of the ethical code for judges, and charges were filed against him before the Court of the Judiciary, which found a string of ethical violations and suspended him from office.

In this appeal, Moore challenged the jurisdiction of the Court of the Judiciary to make its decision and contended that he had not violated any of the judicial ethical rules. He also contended that his suspension, which would run for over two years until the end of his elective term, was not warranted and was unduly long: far longer than any past disciplinary suspension of any sitting judge.

The specially-constituted substitute Supreme Court disagreed with Moore on every point, announcing on April 19 its determination, unanimously, that “the charges were proven by clear and convincing evidence and there is no indication that the sanction imposed was plainly and palpably wrong, manifestly unjust, or without supporting evidence,” so the court “shall not disturb the sanction imposed.”

This might not be the end for Moore as a “public servant,” however. Earlier in his career he had been ejected from the state supreme court for defying a federal court order to remove a 10 Commandments Monument he had installed in the lobby of the Supreme Court building.  He bided his time and eventually came back and won election to a new term as Chief Justice.  On April 26, he announced that he would enter the contest for the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Trump’s Attorney General.  Former Governor Bentley had appointed the state’s attorney general, Luther Strange, to fill the seat pending a special election, and Strange has already announced he will be a candidate for the Republican nomination.  The deadline for candidates to qualify for the primary is May 17 and the party primaries will be held on August 15.  If no candidate wins an outright majority for the Republican nomination, a run-off will be held September 26, and the general election is December 12.

Over $600,000 Awarded to Victorious Lawyers in Texas Marriage Equality Case

In an appeal that has been pending before a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for more than a year, the court decided to reject an attempt by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Commissioner John Hellerstedt of the Department of State Health Services to win a reduction of the large attorneys’ fees and costs awarded by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to the victorious attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in the Texas marriage equality case, DeLeon v. Perry (now titled DeLeon v. Abbott).

Two same-sex couples filed suit in 2013 against then-governor Rick Perry and other state officials seeking the right to marry and to win recognition of same-sex marriages performed out of state. In February 2014 Judge Garcia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the decision was stayed as the state appealed to the 5th Circuit.  That court put off oral arguments until shortly before the Supreme Court announced that it would consider appeals in marriage cases from the 6th Circuit.  Then the 5th Circuit delayed ruling until after the Supreme Court announced its Obergefell decision, which made the 5th Circuit appeal purely academic.  That court quickly affirmed Judge Garcia’s decision, making the plaintiffs “prevailing parties” who were entitled to seek an award of attorneys’ fees and costs.

Judge Garcia awarded fees of $585,470.30 and costs of $20,202.90, more than $600,000 in all. In December 2015, the new line-up of official state defendants filed their appeal.  The 5th Circuit panel issued a brief opinion upholding Garcia’s award, emphasizing that the trial judge has “broad discretion” to award fees and costs if the judge “provides a concise but clear explanation for its reasons for the fee award.”    In this case, the court found that this standard had been met, but one member of the court, Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, issued a dissent on three points.

She objected first to awarding fees for time spent opposing a motion by an anti-gay group to intervene as a co-defendant so that they could make arguments that the state was unlikely to make in defending the statute. Although the plaintiff’s lawyers were successful in beating back the intervention effort, Judge Elrod thought the state should not be required to pay them fees for doing so, since the state had not supported the intervention effort and was not the “losing party” on that issue.

She also objected to awarding fees for time that the attorneys spent “interacting with the media.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers in controversial public interest cases frequently spend time cultivating the media to win favorable coverage of the litigation and help build public support for the resulting court decision.  That was a key part of the litigation strategy in the marriage equality cases, and arguably the successful media cultivation helped to move public opinion so that the ultimate Supreme Court decision and its implementation did not arouse widespread opposition.  But Elrod argued that awarding fees for that time was “improper.”  “Plaintiffs have offered no explanation for how the media-related tasks included in the fee award were directly and intimately related to their successful representation, or were aimed at achieving their litigation goals,” she wrote.  As such, the state should not have to pay for them.

Finally, she objected to awarding fees for much of the time spent by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in recruiting and assisting various amicus curiae (so-called “friends of the court’) to file briefs supporting the plaintiffs in the case. She would have denied fees for such time on the theory, articulated by the 11th Circuit in a prior case, that because “amici are not entitled to attorneys’ fees as a ‘prevailing party,’ it would not allow this result to be changed ‘by the simple expedient of having counsel for a party do some or all of the amicus work.’’”  She would, however, agree to order the state to pay for time that plaintiffs’ attorneys spent reviewing the amicus briefs after they were filed, because the issues and arguments raised by amici might come into play during the trial or appeals of the case.  But she rejected the view that soliciting amicus parties and helping the amici to prepare their briefs was part of the work of representing the plaintiffs.  This seems the least plausible of her objections, since lawyers consider the presentation of forceful amicus briefs, carefully coordinated to avoid inconsistent arguments and assure coverage of all potential points of argument, to be an integral part of their strategy to educate the court and provide significant supplementation to the evidentiary record.  The courts of appeals and the Supreme Court have cited amicus briefs in their opinions in favor of marriage equality, showing that they are not merely peripheral window dressing in the effort to achieve the plaintiffs’ litigation goals.

Judge Elrod stated her objections in terms of concepts rather than dollar amounts, not suggesting how much she would have reduced the fee award, and the per curiam opinion does not respond to any of her arguments. The state could seek Supreme Court review, and Elrod’s partial dissent implicitly encouraged this by contending that some of the points she raised involved departures from 5th Circuit precedent or created splits between the 5th Circuit and other Circuit courts on the basis for awarding fees to prevailing parties.  The Supreme Court is rarely interested in cases about attorneys’ fees, but a circuit split in a high profile case might catch its attention.

2nd Circuit Panels Follow Christiansen Precedent in Title VII Sexual Orientation Cases

On March 27, a three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals released a ruling in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, holding that prior 2nd Circuit decisions blocked any reconsideration by the panel of the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims can be litigated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination because of sex.  In an unusual move, two of the judges on the panel concurred in an opinion virtually accepting the argument that the circuit should reconsider and change its position on this question if presented with a petition for rehearing before the full bench of the circuit.

The 2nd Circuit has eleven active judges, of whom seven were appointed by Presidents Clinton or Obama, the rest by Republican presidents, holding out hope that an en banc review could lead to a favorable circuit precedent.  Although the panel ruled against Matthew Christiansen’s appeal on the sexual orientation question, it sent the case back to the district court to consider his claim of gender-stereotyping, which the Circuit may allow under the rubric of sex discrimination.

Since then, two different three-judge panels of the 2nd Circuit have issued decisions in other cases presenting the same question: whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are covered by Title VII.  In both cases, the courts found themselves bound by Christiansen and the prior precedents to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim.

On April 18, a panel ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express, per curiam, that it was bound by circuit precedent to uphold the trial court’s dismissal of a sexual orientation discrimination claim.   The case involved a gay male skydiver and instructor, since deceased, who was in no way gender-nonconforming – other than his failure to conform with the stereotype that men should be sexually attracted only to women, which the 2nd Circuit does not now recognize as the kind of stereotype that can give rise to a sex discrimination claim.

On April 25, a different panel ruled in Daniel v. T&M Protection Resources, a hostile environment case, that the district court correctly allowed Otis Daniel to maintain his sex discrimination claim, because the court found that the verbal harassment to which Daniel was subjected by his male supervisor could support a gender stereotyping claim. His supervisor “frequently called him ‘homo’ and told him to ‘Man up, be a man.”  The court pointedly observed that the case could not be litigated as a sexual orientation discrimination case because of prior 2nd Circuit rulings, including Zarda and Christiansen.

Attorneys for Christiansen (Susan Lask) and for Zarda’s estate executors (Gregory Antollino) have both indicated that they are filing petitions for en banc rehearing before the full 2nd Circuit.

In addition, Lambda Legal filed a petition on March 31 with the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking an en banc rehearing in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, in which a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on March 10 to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  The panel sent the case back to a trial judge for possible litigation under a gender stereotyping theory.  Eight of the eleven active judges on the 11th Circuit are appointees of Clinton or Obama.

The 2nd and 11th Circuits both had many vacancies filled during President Obama’s first term, tipping the ideological balance of both circuits in a much more liberal direction, leaving hope that they might follow the lead of the Chicago-based 11th Circuit, which on April 4 became the first federal appeals court to ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, in a case brought by lesbian college instructor Kimberly Hively, represented before the appeals court by Lambda Legal.  The issue might be brought to the Supreme Court by a disappointed plaintiff or employer, depending how the courts rule on these continuing appeals.

 

 

 

Florida Ordered to Correct Death Certificates to List Surviving Same-Sex Spouses Without Requiring Individual Court Orders

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

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who rendered a decision prior to Obergefell v. Hodges finding that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, had the opportunity to apply his ruling further in Birchfield v. Armstrong, Case No. 4:15-cv-00615 (N.D. Fla.), issued on March 23, 2017.  The case was brought by Lambda Legal as a class action on behalf of all survivors of same-sex spouses who died in Florida prior to the Obergefell decision, and who were thus not listed as surviving spouses on their death certificates.  Those certificate identify the decedents as being unmarried at death because Florida did not recognize their same-sex marriages, which had been performed out-of-state in jurisdictions that allowed such marriages.

There are two named plaintiffs, Hal B. Birchfield and Paul G. Mocko. Birchfield married James Merrick Smith in New York in 2012, the year after New York adopted its Marriage Equality Law.  Smith died in Florida in 2013.  Mocko married William Gregory Patterson in California in 2014, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal and left standing a federal court order striking down California Proposition 8, thus allowing the resumption of same-sex marriages in California as decreed by that state’s Supreme Court in 2008.  Patterson died in Florida later in 2014.  In both cases, the decedents were identified as unmarried on their death certificates, and any mention of their surviving spouses was omitted.

A proper death certificate is an important document for a surviving spouse to have as they settle the affairs of their decedent, especially when it comes to dealing with issues involving property ownership, bank accounts, survivor benefits under government programs, insurance policies and the like. To have to initiate litigation to obtain a proper death certificate is an inconvenience at a difficult time.

After the Obergefell decision, Birchfield and Mocko sought to get corrected death certificates.  But the state insisted, pursuant to a statute and an interpretive rule, that they could only get such certificates by obtaining an individual court order.  Lambda sued on their behalf in federal court seeking class relief, arguing that the Obergefell decision must be applied retroactively and that the state should have to issue corrected death certificates upon presentation of documentation of the out-of-state weddings, without requiring surviving spouses to go to state court for an order.

The state relied on Fla. Stat. Sec. 382.016(2), which states: “CERTIFICATE OF DEATH AMENDMENTS – Except for a misspelling or an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse, the department may not change the name of a surviving spouse on the certificate except by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Judge Hinkle pointed out that one might plausibly read this statute to authorize exactly the relief that Lambda Legal was seeking in this case. “One might conclude that the explicit exception to the court-order requirement – the exception for ‘an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse’ – applies to a death certificate that both omits the fact that the decedent was married and omits the name of the surviving spouse.”  The problem, however, is that the ambiguity created by the wording of the statute had been addressed years ago through an interpretive rule adopted by the Health Department, which allows an amendment to marital statusor the name of a surviving spouse, but not both, without a court order.  “The defendants refused to depart from that interpretation,” the judge observed, without noting an explanation offered for such refusal.  The obvious explanation is sheer cussedness.  As far as Florida officials are concerned, apparently, they won’t do anything voluntarily to effectuate marriage equality beyond what a court orders them to do.  Witness, for example, the state’s obstinacy on the issue of parental status presumption for same-sex spouses of women who give birth.  Thus, the need for this wasteful litigation.

“As a matter of federal constitutional law,” wrote Judge Hinkle, “a state cannot properly refuse to correct a federal constitutional violation going forward, even if the violation arose before the dispute over the constitutional issue was settled. If the law were otherwise, the schools might still be segregated.”  Florida concedes in this case that as a result of Obergefell, declaring a constitutional right under a provision adopted as part of the Constitution shortly after the Civil War, its failure to recognize these marriages at the time of death was unconstitutional.  “They are willing to correct any pre-Obergefell constitutional violation,” Hinkle continued. “But the defendants insist that, as a prior condition to any correction, an affected party must obtain an order in response to an individual claim in state court.  Not so.  As the Supreme Court said long ago, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 affords a person whose federal constitutional rights have been violated ‘a federal right in federal courts.’  In short, a federal court has jurisdiction to remedy a federal violation, including, when otherwise proper, through a class action.”

Hinkle found this was an appropriate case for such class relief. “To the extent the defendant state officials simply need a clear resolution of the perceived conflict between the federal constitutional requirement and the state statute, this order provides it.”  Acknowledging that state officials could legitimately seek proof that the marriages in question took place, Hinkle said that the state could require the submission of an application, affidavit, and appropriate documentary evidence.  “This order provides that, upon submission of the same materials, the defendants must correct a constitutional error that affected a death certificate’s information on both marital status and a spouse’s identity.”  If they were going to insist on a “court order” to make such a change, then a copy of Judge Hinkle’s order in this case can accompany the application.  “This injunctions binds the defendants [Florida’s Surgeon General/Secretary of Health and the State Registrar of Vital Statistics] and their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys – and others in active concert or participation with any of them – who receive actual notice of this injunction by personal service or otherwise.”

Hinkle indicated that he would retain jurisdiction of the case “to enforce the injunction” if necessary and to “award costs and attorney’s fees” to the plaintiffs. If past is prologue, expect haggling about the amount of attorney’s fees the state will be ordered to pay.  Lambda Legal attorneys Karen L. Loewy and Tara L. Borelli represent the plaintiffs with volunteer co-counsel David P. Draigh and Stephanie S. Silk of White & Case LLP.

Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Florist Who Refused Flowers for Same-Sex Wedding Ceremony

Posted on: February 17th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Continuing an unbroken string of appellate rulings finding that small businesses cannot refuse to supply goods or services for same-sex marriages in jurisdictions that ban sexual orientation discrimination, the nine members of the Supreme Court of the State of Washington unanimously ruled on February 16 that Barronelle Stutzman, proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., and her business, violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and the state’s Consumer Protection Act, and had no constitutional right to do so based on her religious beliefs. State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, 2017 Wash. LEXIS 216, 2017 WL 629181.

This ruling follows a string of losses by businesses that sought to rely on religious objections to refuse wedding-related services to same-sex couples, involving a photographer in New Mexico (Elane Photography v. Willock, 309 P.3d 53 (N.M. 2013)), a baker in Colorado (Mullins v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, 370 P.3d 272 (Col. App. 2015)), and a farm that provided a venue for weddings in upstate New York (Gifford v. McCarthy, 23 N.Y.S.3d 422 (N.Y. App. Div. 2016)).  So far, no final court decision has ruled in favor of a for-profit business claiming a right to discriminate against same-sex couples in connection with their weddings, either under the federal and/or state constitutions or under a state’s Religious Freedom statute.  Washington State does not have such a statute, so Ms. Stutzman’s case came down to two questions: whether her refusal of services violated the public accommodations and consumer protection statutes, and whether she was privileged to withhold her services by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or an equivalent provision of the Washington Constitution.

Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed had been living together in what the opinion by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud calls “a committed, romantic relationship” for several years. Over those years they had been regular customers of Arlene’s Flowers, spending by their estimate as much as $1,000 total at the store.  After the Washington legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages in 2012, Freed proposed to Ingersoll and they planned to marry on their ninth anniversary in September 2013 with a large reception at a major event venue, “complete with a dinner or reception, a photographer, a caterer, a wedding cake, and flowers.”  Naturally, Ingersoll went to Arlene’s Flowers to make arrangements, anticipating no problems because the owner, Ms. Stutzman, knew him and Curt, knew they were gay, and had dealt with them many times.  They considered Arlene’s Flowers to be “their florist.”

So it was a big surprise when Stutzman told Ingersoll that she could not do the flowers for their wedding because of “her relationship to Jesus Christ.” Indeed, the conversation did not even get as far as discussing what kind of flowers or floral arrangements the men wanted, or whether Stutzman was being asked to deliver and set up floral arrangements at an event venue or just to prepare them to be picked up at her store.

The story quickly got media play after Ingersoll posted about it on his facebook.com page, inspiring the state’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson to initiate litigation against Stutzman and her business, and Ingersoll and Freed filed their own complaint. The cases were combined in Benton County Superior Court, where the trial judge granted summary judgment against Stutzman.

The analysis by the court will be familiar to anybody who has been following this issue as it has unfolded in parallel with the advance of marriage equality. Courts have generally rejected the argument made by Stutzman that refusing to do business with same-sex couples in connection with their marriages is not sexual orientation discrimination because the refusal has to do with “conduct” (a wedding) rather than “status” (sexual orientation).  The Washington court decisively rejected this argument, advanced by lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that has been involved in the other cases mentioned above and which is petitioning the Supreme Court to review the Colorado baker case.  So the major focus of the case is not on whether she violated the statutes, that being easily decided, but rather on whether she was privileged to do so because of constitutional protection for her freedom of religion, speech or association.

Most civil rights laws include provisions exempting religious institutions and their clergy from complying to the extent that their doctrines would be violated, but the exemptions usually do not extend to private, for-profit businesses. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, consistent with prior decisions going back to the 1990s, that the 1st Amendment does not require the government to exempt businesses from complying with statutes of general application, such as civil rights laws or, in that case, the Affordable Care Act.  However, under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s religious freedom ruling, the Supreme Court found that a for-profit business may be entitled to claim an exemption from complying with a federal statute or regulation because of the religious views of the owners of the business.  The test in such a case would be whether the challenged statute imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise rights of the business, and then whether the government has both a compelling interest for the statute and has adopted the least intrusive means of achieving that interest.

Washington State does not have a RFRA, so Stutzman was limited to making constitutional claims. The court rejected her argument that her floral arrangements were the kind of artistic creations entitled to free speech protection, or that requiring her to design and supply floral arrangements for a wedding ceremony of which she disapproved would burden her freedom of association.  The court conceded that requiring her to devise floral decorations for such an event would burden her free exercise of religion, but found that the state’s compelling interest in protecting all its residents from discrimination in places of public accommodation clearly outweighed the incidental burden on religion.

“As applied in this case,” wrote Justice Gordon McCloud, “the WLAD does not compel speech or association. And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious exercise under either the First Amendment or article I, section 11 [of the Washington constitution], because it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.”

When the court refers to a “neutral law,” it means a law that does not expressly target religion and was not enacted for the specific purpose of imposing a burden on religion. A law that, in general, forbids all public accommodations from discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, is such a “neutral law.”  Of course, one notes, religiously-inspired advocates such as Alliance Defending Freedom would argue that it is not neutral, and that legislators adopt those laws knowing that they will burden religious believers, because testimony to that effect is usually presented in legislative hearings and the argument is made during legislative debate.  But the courts generally will not attribute a discriminatory intent to the legislature as a whole on the basis of such testimony and arguments.

Stutzman had argued that her refusal to “do” the flowers for the wedding was not a serious problem for the two men because she suppled Ingersoll with the names of other florists who would readily do it, and in fact after this case got publicity several florists contacted Ingersoll and Freed and volunteered to provide flowers for their wedding. In the event, the men were so affected by what had happened to them that they dropped their plans for a big wedding ceremony and instead had a small private event with minimal fuss. The court said that being able to get flowers was not really the issue in this case.  Rather, it was about the violation of civil rights stemming from a denial of services because the customers were a gay couple.  Indeed, in her deposition Stutzman conceded that she would happily supply flowers for a Muslim wedding or a wedding for atheists, making clear that her objections here focused on the fact that it was for a “gay wedding.”  It was not relevant that she claimed she was not homophobic and happily sold flowers to Ingersoll and Freed when it was not for a wedding.  That was not the point of the case.

The timing of this decision is particularly interesting, because the Supreme Court was scheduled to discuss whether to grant review of the Colorado baker case on February 17, having listed it at two of the Court’s prior conferences and having sent for and received the full record from the state courts just recently. If the Court made a decision to review that case at the February 17 conference, it would probably be announced on Tuesday, February 21.

The ACLU of Washington has been involved in representing Ingersoll and Freed in this case. A spokesperson for Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Stutzman, announced that they would petition the Supreme Court to review this case as well as the Colorado baker case.

 

Houston Benefits Dispute May Bring Marriage Equality Issue Back to the Supreme Court

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

Conservatives eager to bring the marriage equality issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Donald J. Trump has had an opportunity to appoint some conservative justices may have found a vehicle to get the issue there in an employee benefits dispute from Houston. On January 20, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it had “withdrawn” its September 2, 2016, order rejecting a petition to review a ruling by the state’s intermediate court of appeals that had implied that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, might require Houston to provide the same spousal health benefits to same-sex as different-sex spouses of City workers.  Instead, announced the Court, it had reinstated the petition for review and scheduled oral argument for March 1, 2017.  Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353 (Tex. 14th Dist. Ct. App., 2015), review denied, sub nom. Pidgeon v. Turner, 2016 WL 4938006 (Texas Supreme Ct., September 2, 2016), No. 16-0688, Order withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, petition reinstated (Jan. 20, 2017).

The plaintiffs in the Houston benefits case, Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, had filed a motion for rehearing with active support from Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both ardent marriage equality opponents eager to chip away at the marriage equality ruling or even to get it reversed. The Texas Supreme Court’s order denying review had been issued over a fervent dissenting opinion by Justice John Devine, who argued for a limited reading of Obergefell, and the Republican leaders’ amicus brief in support of review channeled Devine’s arguments.

Trump’s nomination of a conservative to fill the seat left vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died last February would not change the Supreme Court line-up on marriage equality. Obergefell was decided by a 5-4 vote, with Scalia dissenting.  However, it is possible – even likely, if rumors of a possible retirement by Justice Anthony Kennedy at the end of the Court’s 2017-18 Term are accurate – that Trump will get an opportunity to replace the author of the Obergefell decision with a more conservative justice in time for the Court’s 2018-19 Term.  Regardless how the Texas Supreme Court rules on this appeal, its interpretation of the scope of Obergefell could set up a question of federal constitutional law that could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once the issue gets to the Court, it is possible that the Obergefell dissenters, strengthened in number by new conservative appointees, could take the opportunity to narrow or even overrule the marriage equality decision.

The Houston dispute dates back to 2001, when Houston voters reacted to a City Council move to adopt same-sex partner benefits by approving a City Charter amendment that rejected city employee health benefits for “persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” In 2001 same-sex couples could not legally marry anywhere in the world, so this effectively denied benefits to any and all same-sex partners of City employees.  Texas was also one of many states that put firm bans on same-sex marriage into its constitution and family law statute.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, an openly-lesbian longtime LGBT rights advocate, announced the extension of health benefits to same-sex spouses of City employees. Although same-sex couples could not then marry in Texas, they could go to any of a number of other states to get married, including California and New York and, most conveniently as a matter of geography, Iowa.  Parker and her City Attorney concluded that under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, Houston’s city government was obligated to recognize lawfully contracted same-sex marriages of city employees and provide them the same benefits that were accorded to other city employees.  Federal constitutional requirements would override the City Charter ban as well as state law.

Taxpayers Pidgeon and Hicks filed suit in state court, contending that Parker’s action violated the Texas Constitution and statutes, as well as the city charter amendment. They persuaded the trial judge to issue a temporary injunction against the benefits extension while the case was pending.  The City appealed that ruling to the 14th District Court of Appeals, which sat on the appeal as new marriage equality litigation, sparked by the Windsor ruling, went forward in dozens of states including Texas.  A Texas federal district judge ruled in 2014 in the De Leon case that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the state’s appeal of that ruling in January 2015.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in June 2015, the 5th Circuit issued its decision upholding the Texas district court, 791 F.3d 619, which in turn ordered Texas to allow and recognize same-sex marriages.  This prompted the 14th District Court of Appeals to issue its decision on July 28, 2015.

The Court of Appeals ruling in Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353, said, “Because of the substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed, we reverse the trial court’s temporary injunction and remand for proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  The court did not rule on the merits, merely sending the case back to the trial court to issue a decision “consistent with” the federal marriage equality rulings.  What those rulings may require in terms of city employee benefits is a matter of some dispute.

Pidgeon and Hicks petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review this court of appeals decision, but the court denied that petition on September 2, 2016, with Justice Devine dissenting. Devine argued that the court should have taken up the case because, in his view, the majority of the court “assumed that because the United States Supreme Court declared couples of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires cities to offer the same benefits to same-sex spouses of employees as to opposite-sex spouses.  I disagree.” He continued: “Marriage is a fundamental right.  Spousal benefits are not.  Thus, the two issues are distinct, with sharply contrasting standards for review.  Because the court of appeals’ decision blurs these distinctions and threatens constitutional standards long etched in our nation’s jurisprudence, I would grant review.”

Justice Devine was mistaken as to the court of appeals decision. That court did not hold in its July 28 ruling that same-sex spouses of Houston employees are entitled to health benefits from the city.  Rather, it ruled that because of “substantial change in the law” since the temporary injunction was issued, the injunction should be reversed and the case sent back to the trial court for “proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  If the trial court, on reconsideration, concluded that Obergefell and De Leon did not require the City to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, as Justice Devine argued in his dissent, the trial court could still rule in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks.  All the court of appeals directed the trial judge to do was to rethink the case in light of the new federal rulings.

Devine’s argument rests on a very narrow reading of Obergefell.  He interprets the Supreme Court’s decision to be sharply focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, resting on the Court’s conclusion that the right to marry is a “fundamental right.”  Thus, a state would have to have a “compelling interest” to deny the right, a test that the Supreme Court found was not met.  However, pointed out Devine, the Supreme Court never explicitly said that the federal constitution requires state and local governments to treat all marriages the same, regardless whether they are same-sex or different-sex marriages.  And, he argued, public employees do not have a fundamental constitutional right to receive health insurance benefits from their employer.  Thus, he contended, the state could decide who gets benefits based on its own policy considerations, which the courts should uphold if they satisfy the relatively undemanding “rationality” test that is used when a fundamental right is not at stake.  As to that, he argued that the state’s interest in procreation by married different-sex couples could justify extending benefits to them but not to same-sex couples.

A contrary argument would note that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell specifically listed health insurance as one of the many benefits associated with marriage that contributed towards the conclusion that the right to marry was a fundamental right because of its importance to the welfare of a couple and their children.  Similarly, Justice Kennedy did not consider the “procreation” argument persuasive to justify denying the right to marry to same-sex couples.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court did not say anywhere in its opinion that states are constitutionally required to treat same-sex and different-sex couples exactly the same in every respect, ignoring any factual distinctions between them.  Justice Devine’s argument seems strained, but not totally implausible, especially in the hands of a conservatively-inclined court.

Timing is everything in terms of getting an issue before the Supreme Court, especially if the aim of Texas conservatives and their anti-LGBT allies around the country is to get the issue there after Trump has had two appointments.  Once the Texas Supreme Court hears oral argument on March 1, it could take as long as it likes to issue a ruling on the appeal, and it could be strategic about holding up a ruling until it looks likely that any Supreme Court appeal would be considered after the 2017-18 Term of the Court has concluded in June 2018.  After the Texas Supreme Court rules, the losing party could take up to 90 days to file a petition in the Supreme Court.  If the petition arrives at the Supreme Court after the end of its term, that Court won’t decide whether to grant review until the beginning of its new term in the fall of 2018, and if the petition is granted, argument would not take place for several months, giving the parties time to brief the merits of the case.  If the Texas Supreme Court decides to affirm the court of appeals, it is highly likely that Pidgeon and Hicks, abetted by Abbott and Paxton, will seek Supreme Court review.  If the Texas Supreme Court reverses, the City of Houston will have to decide whether to seek Supreme Court review, or whether to adopt a wait-and-see attitude while the trial court proceeds to a final ruling on the merits of the case.  And the trial court could well decide, upon sober reflection, that Obergefell compels a ruling against Pidgeon and Hicks, which would put them back in the driver’s seat as to the decision to appeal to the Supreme Court.

If a second Trump appointee was confirmed while all of this was playing out, the case would be heard by a bench with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents, one by George H.W. Bush (Clarence Thomas), two by George W. Bush (Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito), and two by Donald Trump. Trump’s appointees would be joining three Republican colleagues who filed or signed dissents in the Windsor and Obergefell cases.  Regardless of how the Petitioner frames the questions posed to the Court, the justices are free to rewrite the question or questions on which they grant review.  If a majority of the newly-constituted Court is eager to revisit Obergefell, they could grant review on the question whether Obergefell was correctly decided.  Based on past history, they could reach that issue if a majority wants to do so without signaling its salience in the Order granting review.

Much of this is conjecture, of course. Justice Devine was a lone voice dissenting from the September 2 order to deny review in this case.  But that order was issued at a time when national pollsters were near unanimous in predicting that Hillary Clinton would be elected and, consequently, would be filling the Scalia vacancy and any others that occurred over the next four years. The political calculus changed dramatically on November 8 when Trump was elected. Even though he has stated that he accepts marriage equality as a “settled issue,” his announced intention to appoint Justices in the image of Scalia and to seek reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s seminal abortion decision from 1973, suggests that he will appoint justices who have a propensity to agree with the Obergefell dissenters that the marriage equality ruling was illegitimate.  (Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his dissent that it had “nothing to do with the Constitution.”)  Although the Court has frequently resisted efforts to get it to reverse highly consequential constitutional decisions, it has occasionally done so, most notably in the LGBT context in its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down a state sodomy law and overruling its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

After the election, many LGBT rights organizations issued statements to reassure people that marriage equality would not immediately disappear after Trump took office. That remains true.  A constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court can only be changed by the adoption of a constitutional amendment, which Democrats can easily block in Congress, or overruling by the Supreme Court, which requires that a new case come up to the Court at a time when a majority of the Court is receptive to the overruling argument, which seems to be at least two years off from now.  But these statements, including those by this writer, conceded that in the long run it was possible that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and new appeals headed to the Supreme Court might come together to endanger marriage equality.  This new development in the Houston benefits case shows one way that could happen.

No, Donald Trump Can’t Repeal Marriage Equality

Posted on: November 11th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Some panicky LGBT people have been calling the LGBT legal and political organizations to ask whether they should accelerate their wedding plans to marry before Donald Trump takes office, and many are expressing concern that the marriage equality victory, won in the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, after so much hard work and heartache, is now in danger of being reversed, and that their own same-sex marriages might become invalid.

 

Although nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty, it is highly unlikely that the marriage equality decision will be reversed, and it is an absolute certainty that Trump as president will not have the authority to reverse it on his own or even with the connivance of Congress.  Furthermore, there is good legal authority to conclude that a valid marriage, once contracted, can only be ended by a divorce or by the death of one of the spouses, not by executive fiat or legislative action.

 

The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, voting 5-4, that same-sex couples have a right to marry as part of the liberty guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, bolstered by the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.  A ruling on a constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court can only be changed in one of two ways: a constitutional amendment, or an overruling by the Supreme Court in a later case.  Once a case is decided and the Court sends its mandate out to the lower court from which the case was appealed, the losing party can file a petition seeking a rehearing, but such a petition has to be filed quickly and the Court almost always denies them.  We are now 18 months out from the Obergefell ruling.  It is final, done, no longer open to reconsideration by the Court.  And the President has no power to “repeal” or “overrule” it by himself.  Neither does Congress.

 

During the campaign, Donald Trump did not threaten to try to repeal or reverse the ruling on his own. He said he thought the question of marriage should have been left to the states, so he disagreed with the Court’s decision, and he said he would consider appointing new justices to the Supreme Court who would vote to overrule it.

 

Trump can’t appoint a new justice to the Court until there is a vacancy.  There is one now, due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last winter and the refusal by the Senate to consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace him.  But Justice Scalia dissented in the Obergefell case, so replacing him with a conservative judge would not change the outcome.  The five-member majority in Obergefell – Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote the Court’s opinion), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – are all still there.  And there is no case now pending before the Court that would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell v. Hodges.  And any marriage equality opponent thinking strategically would be waiting until one of those majority justices leaves before attempting to launch a legal challenge.

 

What about the constitutional amendment route?  That is not going to happen.  Trump’s election doesn’t affect that at all, since the President plays no role in amending the Constitution.  Article V makes it so difficult to pass an amendment that our 240-year-old Constitution has picked up only 27 amendments, ten of them being the Bill of Rights adopted in 1791, and the most recent one, adopted in 1992, a quarter century ago, requiring that any pay raise that Congress votes for itself cannot go into effect until after the next House of Representatives election.  In order to propose a new amendment, at least 2/3 of each house of Congress has to approve it, and then it has to be ratified by at least ¾ of the states.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the states can apply to Congress to call a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, but any amendments proposed would still require ratification by ¾ of the states.

 

By the time the Supreme Court decided Obergefell in 2015, popular opinion polls showed that a clear majority of the public supported marriage equality, and that margin of support only increases over time, as polling in the early marriage equality states such as Massachusetts has shown.  Amendments to the Constitution can only pass with overwhelming public support.  There is no overwhelming public support to abolish same-sex marriage.  That effort is now the province mainly of far-right-wing cranks and religious fanatics.  And as long as the Democrats hold more than 1/3 of the seats in the Senate, it is highly unlikely that a Marriage Amendment would get the necessary 2/3 vote in that chamber.  Indeed, the Democrats hold enough seats in that House, in combination with some more moderate Republicans, to block it in that chamber as well.  So, marriage equality opponents, forget about passing a Marriage Amendment.

 

The alternative, of course, is for opponents to set up a lawsuit raising the question and to get it to the Supreme Court after Trump (or a successor) has had an opportunity to appoint somebody to replace a member of the Obergefell majority.   That majority includes the three oldest members of the Court, Ginsburg, Kennedy and Breyer, so it is possible Trump will have that opportunity before the end of a four-year term.   Even then, however, an overruling is highly unlikely.

 

First, a case presenting the question has to come to the Court, and the issue of marriage equality has to be central to that case.  The Court may be presented over the next few years with cases that involving marriage equality in some way.  They already have a petition to review the Colorado marriage cake case, presenting the claim that a baker’s 1st Amendment rights are violated by fining him under a state anti-discrimination law for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but I’m not sure such a case, even if the Supreme Court decided to hear it, would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell.  More likely, a challenge would come from some state deciding to provoke a lawsuit by denying equal treatment for some benefit to a married same-sex couples. But it’s not enough just to petition the Court, because the Court has complete discretion about whether to accept a case for review, and it takes four Justices to grant such a petition.  By the time they get such a petition AFTER a change of membership has reduced the Obergefell majority, perhaps several years from now, same-sex marriage will be such a settled issue, with so many tens of thousands of same-sex couples married throughout the country, that it seems highly unlikely that even four members of the Court would be motivated to reopen the issue.

 

Furthermore, the Court normally embraces a concept called “stare decisis,” a Latin term meaning standing by what has been decided.  They are very reluctant to overrule themselves, especially when a decision has been embraced by society and incorporated into the everyday lives of many people.  When they do overrule a prior decision, it is usually in the direction of realizing that the old decision wrongly denied a constitutional claim or adopted an incorrect and harmful interpretation of a statute.   The Court resists attempts to get it to cut back rights that it previously recognized.

 

In the course of litigating about LGBT rights, the Court has twice overruled past decisions.  In 2003, the Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) when it decided that the constitution protected people engaged in consensual gay sex from criminal prosecution, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).  Indeed, the Court said that Bowers was wrong when it was decided.  The second time, it overruled Baker v. Nelson (1972) when it held that same-sex couples have a right to marry.  Baker, however, was a one-sentence decision stating that the issue of same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question.”  In both cases, overruling involved a determination that the prior case had wrongly failed to recognize a constitutional right, so the new decision marked an expansion of liberty and equality. The Court is unlikely to overrule a case in order to contract liberty or deny equality.

 

As to the validity of existing same-sex marriages, when Californians passed Proposition 8 in 2008 after several thousand same-sex couples had married in that state, the California Supreme Court ruled that although Prop 8 was validly enacted, it could not retroactively “un-marry” all those couples.  Their marriages would continue to be valid and recognized by the state.  It is unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would take a different position regarding existing same-sex marriages if it were to overrule Obergefell.  That would raise daunting due process and equal protection questions.

 

Trump’s taking office does not present a direct and present threat to marriage equality.  It does present many other threats, including the loss of pro-LGBT executive orders and the likely abandonment by federal agencies of the position that sex discrimination laws protect LGBT people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  But those are other issues….

A Flood of New Litigation on LGBT Rights

Posted on: May 10th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

May has brought a flood of litigation over LGBT rights in the federal courts. During the first few days of the month, half a dozen federal lawsuits were filed addressing either the transgender bathroom issue or continuing state-level resistance to marriage equality.

First out of the box was a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago on May 4 by two right-wing litigation groups – The Thomas More Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom – challenging the U.S. Department of Education’s agreement with Township School District 211 that settled a lawsuit about transgender restroom access.   Under the settlement agreement the school district will allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity.  The case stirred considerable local controversy, and the litigation groups were able to recruit five students and their parents, banding together as “Students and Parents for Privacy,” to challenge the settlement.  They argue that the students have a fundamental constitutional right of “bodily privacy” that is violated when transgender students show up in the restroom, that the settlement violates the parents’ fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their children by exposing the children to such shocking things, and, perhaps most importantly, that the Education Department’s position that gender identity discrimination violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, a federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools that receive federal money, is a misinterpretation of that statute and was not validly adopted.

This last argument rests on a plausible reading of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute that specifies procedures that federal agencies must follow when they adopt new regulations. While the Education Department has not adopted a regulation on the subject, the plaintiffs make a strong argument that its enforcement of its interpretation is tantamount to a regulation.  The plaintiffs argue that the Department is not free to take such a position without going through the formalities of the Administrative Procedure Act, because the Department is enforcing its view as if it was a regulation and because the position it is taking was consistently rejected for the first several decades of Title IX’s existence.  (The statute dates from the early 1970s.)  If the courts agree, the Department would have to go through a time-consuming process that could stretch out over many months in order to adopt a valid regulation, and then the regulation would be subject to challenge in the federal appeals courts, which could tie it up in litigation for years.

On the other hand, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments have already been rejected by the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, when it ruled on April 19 that a federal court in Virginia should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX in a case brought by a transgender boy seeking appropriate restroom access in his Virginia high school.  That ruling turned on the court’s agreement with the Education Department that existing statutory provisions and regulations (which allow schools to maintain separate restrooms for males and females) were ambiguous as to how to treat transgender people, justifying the Department in adopting a position consistent with its view of the purpose of the law to provide equal educational opportunity.  The 4th Circuit held that the district court should defer to the Department’s judgment, since it was not a clearly erroneous interpretation of the statute and the existing regulations.  In the Chicago lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the statute and regulations are not ambiguous, but this rests on their assertion that the Congress that passed Title IX so long ago could not have intended any meaning for the term “sex” other than “biological sex” as determined at birth.  The 4th Circuit, by contrast, found that the term “sex” without any explanatory statutory definition could have a variety of meanings depend upon the context in which it was used, and is thus inherently ambiguous.

Chicago is in the 7th Circuit, so the 4th Circuit’s ruling is not binding on the lawsuit filed there.  More than thirty years ago, the 7th Circuit ruled in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that discrimination because of gender identity did not violate the sex discrimination provision and the federal court in Chicago may find itself constrained, if not directly bound, by that precedent under a different but parallel statute, although thirty years of developments in the courts have arguably rendered it obsolete.  Federal courts have generally held that the term “sex” in Title VII and Title IX should be given the same meaning, and that cases construing one of those statutes can be consulted when construing the other.

Just five days later, on May 9, there was a flurry of new litigation in the U.S. District Courts of North Carolina, focused on the bathroom provisions of H.B. 2. H.B. 2 was introduced in the state legislature, approved by both houses and signed by Governor Pat McCrory in one day, March 23.  It wiped out local government bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, quashed the right of North Carolinians to sue for any kind of discrimination in state courts, and prohibited localities from adopting their own rules on government contracting and minimum wages.  Most controversially, however, it provided that in all public facilities with restrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms and the like, multi-occupancy facilities must be segregated by biological sex, defined as the sex recorded on a person’s birth certificate.  The state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, denounced the measure as discriminatory and said his office would not defend it.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina on March 28, challenging portions of H.B. 2 under the 14th Amendment and Title IX, and subsequently one of the transgender plaintiffs in the case also filed charges of discrimination under Title VII with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (which had ruled last year that Title VII requires employers to allow transgender employees to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity).  Within a few weeks, the 4th Circuit’s April 19 ruling in the Virginia Title IX case placed the legality of the bathroom provisions in doubt.  The controversy surrounding H.B. 2, especially the bathroom provision and the preemption of local anti-discrimination ordinances, caused adverse reactions that echoed throughout the country as governors and mayors prohibited official travel to North Carolina, some major employers announced reconsideration of plans to locate facilities there, and conventions and major musical performers cancelled activities in the state.  But Governor McCrory and the Republican state legislative leaders rejected calls to rescind the statute.

The Justice Department weighed in early in May, when the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to Governor McCrory, who had been vigorously defending the law in national media, informing him that the Justice Department considered the bathroom provision to violate federal sex discrimination laws and demanding a response by May 9. Governor McCrory’s response was to file a lawsuit on May 9, seeking a declaration from the federal district court in the Eastern District of North Carolina that the bathroom provisions did not violate federal civil rights laws.  U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch then held a press conference at which she unveiled a new lawsuit by the federal government against North Carolina, filed in the Middle District of North Carolina, seeking a declaration that the bathroom provision violates federal law.  Lynch’s statement, which quickly went viral on the internet, promised transgender people that the federal government recognized them and was standing behind them, thus putting the full weight of the Justice Department on the line backing the Education Department and the EEOC in their interpretations of “sex discrimination” under their respective statutes.

Since North Carolina Attorney General Cooper was refusing to defend H.B. 2, Governor McCrory retained a private lawyer, Karl S. Bowers, Jr., of Columbia, South Carolina, who filed the complaint co-signed by the governor’s General Counsel, Robert C. Stephens, and local North Carolina attorneys from the Raleigh firm of Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC.  Presumably they will also be conducting the defense in the Justice Department’s case.  Their argument, consistent with McCrory’s public statements, was that the state was not discriminating against transgender people, merely requiring them to use alternative facilities in order to protect the privacy rights of others.  The complaint echoed the governor’s “common sense privacy policy” argument, and insisted that federal courts have “consistently” found that Title VII “does not protect transgender or transsexuality per se.”  While the complaint lists half a dozen federal court rulings supporting that position, it conveniently fails to note numerous court decisions holding to the contrary, including decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, and district courts in many different states.

The Justice Department will probably move to transfer McCrory’s case to the Middle District of North Carolina, where it can be consolidated with the Justice Department’s lawsuit and perhaps the pending Lambda/ACLU lawsuit. There was another lawsuit defending H.B. 2 filed on May 9 in the Eastern District court by North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), but it is hard to conceive how they could have standing to bring a federal lawsuit on their own, so it is likely to be dismissed if the government makes a motion to that effect.

Meanwhile, there were also new litigation developments in Mississippi, challenging House Bill 1523, the so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.” HB 1523 was passed in response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision of last June 26.  Subsequent to Obergefell, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court injunction against the state of Mississippi’s enforcement of its anti-gay marriage ban, and marriage equality came to the state.  State legislators quickly went to work undermining this by devising H.B. 1523, which essentially gives government officials, businesses, and religious believers permission to discriminate against same-sex couples, provided that the discriminators have a sincere religious belief that marriage should only involve one man and one woman.  The measure is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

The ACLU lawsuit filed on May 9 in the federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, charges that H.B. 1523 violates the 14th Amendment “by subjecting the lawful marriages of same-sex couples to different terms and conditions than those accorded to different-sex couples.”  In effect, Mississippi has set up a “separate but equal” framework, which “imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi.”  The lawsuit names as defendant the Mississippi State Registrar of Vital Records, Judy Moulder.

Among its many discriminatory provisions, H.B. 1523 provides that government employees “who wish to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples” will be required to Moulder, and she will be required to maintain a list of officials who have recused themselves from providing same-sex couples with the services that are routinely provided to different-sex couples, and they will be excused from providing these services to same-sex couples. These recusant officials are also charged by the statute with a requirement to make arrangements to insure that same-sex couples do receive the services to which they are entitled, but the statute does not establish any mechanism to ensure compliance with this provision.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that H.B. 1523 is unconstitutional “on its face” and an injunction against it going into effect.   It was immediately followed by more court action, as New York attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represents the plaintiffs in the Mississippi marriage equality case, filed a motion in federal district court on May 10, asking Judge Carlton Reeves to reopen the case so they can name Judy Moulder as an additional defendant and modify his injunction to require the state to come up with the necessary procedures to ensure that same-sex couples who seek to marry will not encounter any delays due to recusals on religious grounds by state officials.  Indeed, she argues, anyone recusing themselves from serving same-sex couples should be disqualified from serving different-sex couples as well, as failure to do so would violate the obligations of all state officials to provide non-discriminatory service. The motion also asks that the list of recusant officials be posted on the website of the Registrar of Vital Records so that couples won’t have to subject themselves to the indignity of being turned away when they seek marriage licenses.

 

Mississippi Defies the 1st Amendment with “Freedom of Conscience” Law

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

On April 5 Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law H.B. 1523, a measure that received overwhelming approval in both houses of the state legislature.  Titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act,” the law was clearly intended to encourage businesses and individuals in the state to discriminate against same-sex couples, LGBT people, and even sexually-active unmarried heterosexuals.

Despite the broad wording of its title, the measure does not on its face protect freedom of conscience in general.  Instead, in Section 2, the legislature stated that “the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that (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 time of birth.”  The first of these, of course, defies the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  The second defies the 2003 ruling, Lawrence v. Texas, which held that the state may not penalize sexual relations between consenting adults in private, regardless of their sex.  And the third defies the general medical consensus that gender identity is a human characteristic that exists apart from biological sex in terms of anatomy and genetics.

The law does not specify how it will be determined that somebody sincerely holds these beliefs or is merely asserting them opportunistically to avoid liability for mistreating somebody.

In effect, Mississippi has moved to protect from any adverse consequences at the hands of the state anybody who sincerely believes that a person born with a penis can only be considered a man for the rest of their life, and similarly a person born with a vagina can only be considered a woman.  This takes things one step further than North Carolina, which provided in its notorious H.B. 2, enacted in March, that “biological sex” means the sex indicated on a person’s birth certificate.  Since North Carolina will allow people to obtain new birth certificates consistent with their gender identity upon medical certification of surgical transition, that state evidently does not officially believe that sex is quite so “immutable.”

The new law goes on to protect people who act on these beliefs in various ways.  For example, religious organizations and clergy can refuse to have anything to do with same-sex marriages, including refusing to provide facilities or services in connection with same-sex marriage or to married same-sex couples.  Businesses can refuse to provide their goods or services or accommodations to same-sex couples, and can exclude transgender people from the use of single-sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Nobody can be subjected to loss of their tax-exempt status or denial of government contracts or benefits because they have these “protected” beliefs.  People who spout anti-LGBT rhetoric will be protected from adverse consequences as well.  They can’t be fired from government jobs for articulating such beliefs, for example.

Government employees whose jobs involve authorizing or licensing marriages can seek “recusal from authorizing or licensing lawful marriages based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” as defined in the statute, provided they send a written notice of such recusal to the State Registrar of Vital Records. They may not suffer any adverse consequences for recusing themselves, but “the person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  Apparently, then, the person recusing themselves is responsible for being sure that somebody else who is willing to perform their duty is available to do so when the service is needed.  This provision is undoubtedly intended to shield the state from liability for refusing to provide a service that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to receive.

The law also relieves people who officiate at weddings from any obligation to perform ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs about the invalidity of same-sex marriages. This presumably would include refusing to officiate if one of the prospective spouses is transgender and that raises religious or moral objections for the officiant because of their lack of belief in the reality of the individual’s gender identity.  OF course, such protection is completely superfluous, since nobody would seriously contend that the government can compel clergy to perform services.

The “discriminatory action” that the government is not allowed to take against people holding and acting on these beliefs goes far beyond taxes to encompass any state benefit, license, certification, accreditation, custody award or agreement, and on and on and on. The list seems to anticipate the variety of cases that have arisen around the country over the past few years in which people have suffered adverse consequences because of their religious objections to homosexuality or same-sex marriage.  For example, some people have been expelled from graduate counseling programs for refusing to provide non-judgmental counseling to gay clients, and such expulsions would clearly be prohibited by this law.  The law would also forbid denying government employment to anybody because of these sincerely held religious beliefs by the prospective employee.

The practical effect is to say that married same-sex couples can be denied a host of benefits and entitlements under a variety of programs, in blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell. Ironically, this law was enacted just days after a federal district judge in Mississippi ruled that the state’s ban on adoption of children by same-sex married couples violates the 14th Amendment in light of Obergefell.   And the law erects a structure somewhat akin to apartheid around same-sex marriages.

The measure seems clearly unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, since it exalts and privileges particular religious beliefs and those who hold them for “special rights.”  On the other hand, some of the law is “merely” symbolic for several reasons.  First, since neither Mississippi nor any of its political subdivisions expressly outlaws discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations because of sexual orientation or gender identity, people or businesses acting to deny goods, services or accommodations to LGBT people and same-sex couples could do so freely without any consequence under state law before this measure was enacted.  Second, due to the Supremacy Clause of the federal constitution, federal constitutional and statutory rights take priority over state law.

Thus, for example, under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education, educational institutions in Mississippi that receive federal money (which would be just about all of them) may not discriminate against transgender individuals because of their gender identity, and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, employers in Mississippi may not discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And, of course, as a federal court ruled days earlier, state policies denying equal rights and benefits to married same-sex couples can be challenged under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The main question now is who will file for the first lawsuit to challenge this travesty. Robbie Kaplan, the fearless slayer of DOMA, victorious advocate in the Mississippi marriage equality lawsuit, and representative of the plaintiffs in the same-sex parents adoption case, would be our candidate.