New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Disappointed Gay Dad Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Key New York Precedent

In Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), the New York Court of Appeals overruled a 25-year-old precedent and held that when there is clear and convincing evidence that a same-sex couple agreed to have a child and raise the child together, where only one of them will be the child’s biological parent, and both of the parties performed parental duties and bonded with the children, the other parent would have the same rights as the biological parent in a later custody dispute. Now a gay biological dad who lost custody of twins to his former same-sex partner by application of the Brooke S.B. precedent asked the U.S. Supreme Court on May 10 to rule that his 14th Amendment Due Process rights have been violated.  Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431 (Filed May 10, 2019); Renee P.F. v. Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (App. Div., 2nd Dep’t, May 30, 2018), leave to appeal denied, 32 N.Y.3d 910 (N.Y.C.A., Dec. 11, 2018).

Frank G. and Joseph P. lived together in a same-sex relationship in New York and made a joint decision to have a child.  Joseph P.’s sister, Renee, had previously volunteered to be a surrogate for her gay brother, both donating her eggs and bearing the resulting child or children.  Renee became pregnant through assisted reproductive technology using Frank’s sperm.  The three entered into a written agreement under which Renee would surrender parental rights but would be involved with the resulting child or children as their aunt.

After the twins were born, both men participated in parenting duties.  Joseph sought to adopt the twins under New York’s second-parent adoption rules, and he remembered completing paperwork that Frank was supposed to complete and submit, but that never happened.  The men were not sexually exclusive and eventually arguments about Frank’s sexual activities led to Joseph moving out.  He continued to have regular contact with the children until Frank suddenly cut off contact after another argument.  Frank subsequently moved with the children to Florida in December 2014.  Frank did not notify Joseph or Renee of that move. When they found out, Joseph filed a guardianship petition.  (Under New York precedents at the time, he did not have standing to file a custody petition.)

As lower court rulings were questioning the old New York precedent, Joseph withdrew his guardianship petition and both he and Renee filed custody petitions.  Renee had standing to seek custody as the biological mother who had remained in contact with the children.

Frank moved to dismiss the custody lawsuit, but the trial judge, Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods, rejected the motion, holding that both Joseph and Renee had standing to seek custody and ordering temporary visitation rights for Joseph and Renee while the case was proceeding.  Frank appealed to the Appellate Division, 2nd Department.  While his appeal was pending, the Court of Appeals decided Brooke S.B..  Applying that case, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s standing decision and returned the case Judge Woods.

After a lengthy trial, which is summarized in detail in the trial court’s opinion, the trial court awarded custody to Joseph, with visitation rights for Frank.  Frank appealed again.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order.  Frank unsuccessfully sought review by the New York Court of Appeals.

Frank is represented on the Supreme Court petition by Gene C. Schaerr of the Washington, D.C. firm of Schaerr/Jaffe LLP.  Schaerr, a Federalist Society stalwart and a Mormon from Utah, where he graduated from Brigham Young University’s Law School, was prominently involved in the marriage equality battle, representing the state of Utah in defending its ban on same-sex in federal court, and he submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges on behalf of conservative legal scholars who argued that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to the institution of marriage, presenting social statistics from Europe purporting to show that the adoption of same-sex marriage in some countries caused rates of heterosexual marriage to fall.  Social scientists have contended that the downward trend in marriage rates in Europe was well under way long before the countries in question extended legal recognition to same-sex relationships, and causation was not shown.   In other words, Schaerr is an anti-LGBT cause lawyer, and the slanting of facts recited in the Petition for Frank as compared to the detailed fact findings summarized in the trial court’s unpublished opinion, which is appended to the cert Petition, is striking.

Family law is primarily a matter of state law, but the U.S. Supreme Court occasionally gets involved in family law disputes that raise constitutional issues.  Since early in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has ruled that a legal parent of a child has constitutional rights, derived from the Due Process Clause, relating to custody and childrearing.  The Petition argues that the rule adopted by the New York Court of Appeals and the appellate courts of some other states, recognizing parental status for purposes of custody disputes between unmarried same-sex partners, improperly abridges the Due Process rights of the biological parents.

Some state courts have issued decisions similar to Brooke S.B., while others have refused to recognize standing for unmarried same-sex partners to seek custody.  There is definitely a split of authority on the issue, but it is not necessarily the kind of split that would induce the Supreme Court to take a case.  The Supreme Court is most concerned with variant interpretations of federal statutes or of the U.S. Constitution, but the state court cases addressing the issue of same-sex partner standing have generally not discussed constitutional issues and have reached their conclusions as an interpretation of their state custody statutes.  Although it is true that same-sex partner parental rights vary as between different states, this does not necessary create the kind of patchwork as to federal rights upon which the Court would focus.

Furthermore, the Court has not invariably ruled in favor of biological parents on the rare occasion when it has agreed to consider legal issues arising from custody disputes.  For example, in one notable case, it upheld a California law creating an irrebuttable presumption that a man who was married to a birth mother is the father of the resulting child, even when it was obvious, and nobody disputed, that another man was responsible for impregnating the woman.  In that case, even though the woman and her husband were living on opposite coasts when she became pregnant in a relationship with the plaintiff, the court upheld denying that man standing to seek custody of the child.

Most of the Supreme Court rulings on disputed custody issues have placed substantial weight on the rights of the biological parent, including a presumption that the biological parent will make decisions in the best interest of the child. In this Petition, Frank claims that the New York courts violate the 14th Amendment by not applying such a presumption for the biological father in the context of a same-sex couple custody dispute.

The Supreme Court’s deadline for filing a brief in response to a petition for certiorari in this case was June 14, but the Court’s docket does not show the filing of a brief or appearance of counsel on behalf of Joseph or Renee as of June 19.  However, four conservative organizations have filed motions with the Court to accept amicus briefs in support of Frank’s petition.  Frank’s attorneys have consented to the filing of these briefs, of course, but Joseph has not consented, so it is up to the Court whether they can be filed.

If the Supreme Court decides to take this case, the Brooke S.B. precedent, which LGBT rights litigators struggled for many years to obtain, may fall.

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9th Circuit Instructs District Court on Next Stage in Trans Military Litigation

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued a ruling on June 14 on several appeals filed by the Justice Department in Karnoski v. Trump, one of the lawsuits challenging President Trump’s transgender military policy.  The result was not a complete win for the government or the plaintiffs, but the case will go forward before U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle using different legal tests than those she had employed in issuing the rulings that the government had appealed.  Because one of the other challenges to the policy is pending in a district court in Riverside, California, which is also within the 9th Circuit, the court’s ruling effectively applies to both cases.  Karnoski v. Trump, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 17878, 2019 WL 2479442 (9th Cir., June 14, 2019).

Since neither party is likely to be fully satisfied with the ruling, which does not fully embrace either party’s position on the appeals, it is possible that one or both will seek reconsideration by a larger panel of the circuit court.  In the 9th Circuit, such panels consist of the Chief Judge of the Circuit and ten active circuit judges drawn at random, together with any senior judges who sat on the panel.  The panel that issued the June 14 ruling had two senior judges – Raymond C. Fisher and Richard R. Clifton – and one active judge, Conseulo M. Callahan.  Fisher was appointed by Bill Clinton, while Clifton and Callahan were appointed by George W. Bush.  District Judge Pechman was appointed by Bill Clinton.

For purposes of simplicity, this description of where the lawsuit stands will refer to the policy announced by then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in June 2016 as the 2016 policy, the policy announced in tweets and a White House memorandum by President Donald Trump in July and August 2017 as the 2017 policy, and the policy recommended to Trump by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in February 2018 as the 2018 policy.

The 2016 policy ended the long-standing regulatory ban on military service by transgender people, but delayed allowing transgender people to enlist until July 2017.  In June 2017, Secretary Mattis announced that the ban on enlistment would be extended to the end of 2017.  The July tweet and August 2017 memorandum announced a return to the ban on service and enlistment that predated the 2016 policy, but delayed re-implementation of the ban until March 2018, pending submission of an implementation plan to the president by Mattis, while providing that the ban on enlistment would remain in effect.

The plan Mattis recommended in February 2018, and that Trump authorized him to adopt, abandoned the total ban concept and is complicated to explain. The policy attempted to shift its focus, at least in terms of concept, from transgender status to the condition of gender dysphoria as described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  The 2018 plan allows some transgender people to serve under certain conditions, depending upon whether and when they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria, whether and when they intended to transition or had transitioned, and whether they were willing to serve in their gender as identified at birth.  People who had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria were barred from enlisting, and currently serving transgender personnel who had not been diagnosed and initiated the process of transitioning by the time the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving only if they foreswore transitioning while in the service.  However, those who were serving and had begun transitioning before the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving in the gender to which they had transitioned.  People who identify as transgender but have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are content to serve in the gender identified at birth can enlist and serve, but must leave the service if they are subsequently diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The bottom line, which was a motivation for Trump’s initial tweet, is that once the 2018 policy was in place, the military would not be funding sex-reassignment surgery for anyone and people could not transition in the military.

Beginning in August 2017 and continuing through that summer, challengers file four lawsuits challenging the 2017 policy on constitutional grounds in Baltimore, Washington (D.C.), Seattle, and Riverside (California).  All of the major LGBT litigation groups were representing the plaintiff in one or more of the cases.  Within months, each of the federal district judges had granted motions for preliminary injunctions to prevent the 2017 policy from going into effect.  In order to issue the injunctions, all four judges had to find that some or all of the plaintiffs’ legal arguments had a fair chance of succeeding on the merits, and that the injunctions were necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs by preserving the status quo without harming the public interest.  The district judges refused to “stay” their injunctions, and on the east coast they were backed up by the 4th and D.C. Circuits, leading the government to abandon an attempt to appeal the denial of stays for the west coast cases in the 9th Circuit.  The district judges also rejected motions by the government to dismiss the cases.  Thus, on January 1, 2018, the Defense Department was required to accept enlistment applications from transgender people, and the 2016 policy remained in effect for transgender people who were actively serving in the military.

Meanwhile, Secretary Mattis appointed a Task Force as directed by the August 2017 White House memo to prepare a report in support of an implementation policy recommendation, which he submitted to the White House in February 2018, urging the president to revoke the 2017 policy and to allow Mattis to implement his recommended policy.  The Task Force was described in various ways at various times by the government, but the names and titles of the members were not listed in the written report released to the public, and the government has resisted discovery requests for their identity and information about how the Task Force report was prepared.

Once Secretary Mattis had the go-ahead from Trump to implement his recommendation, the Justice Department moved in all four courts to get the preliminary injunctions lifted, arguing that the 2018 policy was sufficiently different from the 2017 policy to render the existing injunctions irrelevant.  All four of the district judges rejected that argument and refused to dissolve or modify their injunctions.  The government appealed and ultimately was able to persuade the Supreme Court earlier this year to stay the injunctions and allow the policy to go into effect early in April. Although the 2018 policyhas been in effect for over two months, there have not been reports about discharges of serving transgender personnel.

Significantly, the 9th Circuit panel implied without ruling that the preliminary injunction against the 2017 policy seemed justified.

Meanwhile, the parties in the four cases were litigating about the plaintiffs’ attempts to conduct discovery on order to surface the information necessary to prove their constitutional claims against the policy.  The government fought the discovery requests doggedly, arguing that the internal workings of its military policy-making should not be subject to disclosure in civil litigation, referring to but not formally invoking concepts of decisional privilege and executive privilege, which courts have recognized to varying extent in prior cases challenging government policies.

In the Karnoski case in Seattle, Judge Pechman was highly skeptical about the government’s arguments, having questioned whether the policies were motivated by politics rather than professional military judgment, and she issued an order for the government to comply with a large portion of the requests for documents and information after prolonged negotiations by the lawyers largely came to naught.  The government appealed her discovery orders to the 9th Circuit, together with refusal to rethink the preliminary injunction in light of the substitution of the 2018 policy for the 2017 policy.

The June 14 opinion describes how the case should go forward, taking account of the Supreme Court’s action in having stayed the preliminary injunctions but not dissolved them.  The 9th Circuit panel agreed with the D.C. Circuit, which had concluded earlier in the year that the D.C. district court was wrong to conclude that the 2018 policy was just a version of the 2017 policy with some exceptions.  The appellate courts held that the 2018 policy recommended by Mattis was no longer the total ban announced in 2017, so the district court should evaluate the 2018 policy.

The court rejected the government’s argument that shifting the exclusionary policy from “transgender status” to “gender dysphoria” eliminated the equal protection issue, finding from the wording of the Task Force report and the policy as summarized in writing by Mattis that the policy continued to target transgender people in various ways, regardless whether they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, through the conditions it places on their service.  This was a “win” for the plaintiffs on an important contested point.

Judge Pechman had concluded that gender identity is a “suspect classification,” so for purposes of evaluating the constitutionality of the policy under an Equal Protection challenge, it should be presumed unconstitutional with a heavy burden placed on the government to prove a compelling need for the policy.  The 9th Circuit panel decided there was not sufficient precedent to support that approach, but did agree with the position taken by the district judges in the other three cases that the policy should be subjected to “heightened scrutiny,” similar to the approach courts take in sex discrimination cases, but tempered by consideration of the degree to which the policy merits deference as a product of professional military judgment.

Judge Pechman had concluded that the 2017 policy did not merit judicial deference, because there was no evidence before the court that it was the product of professional military judgment.  Rather, as all the district judges had concluded, based on the way the policy was announced in a surprise tweet and the failure of the government to provide any information about how it was formulated, the court’s analysis should not be tempered by judicial deference.

Now, however, said the 9th Circuit panel, the government had described, in a general way, how Mattis’s Task Force was put together, and t the 2018 policy was allegedly the result of many meetings, study, much interviewing of military personnel, and a 44—page report.  If one accepts the government’s description of the process – still not identifying by name the Task Force members or getting into any real detail about the basis for their conclusions – the court said, there is an argument that the 2018 policy should be accorded judicial deference, but whether to do so, and how that would interrelate with the heightened scrutiny standard, were questions to be addressed by the district court.  Thus, the task for Judge Pechman now is to determine whether the 2018 policy is sufficiently a product of military judgment to justify applying a deferential standard of review.  Some degree of cooperating by the government in the discovery process is crucially necessary for such an analysis to take place.

However, as to discovery, the 9th Circuit panel expressed concern that Judge Pechman had not accorded sufficient weight to the concepts of decisional and executive privilege in formulating her discovery order, and directed that she refer to guidelines set out in some recent court opinions.  In particular, the court disagreed with her order that the government provide detailed privilege logs with descriptions of all the documents for which there were privilege concerns, and suggested that an approach focused on broadly described categories of documents and information could suffice for an initial determination of the degree to which privilege might be claimed to block disclosure.

The bottom line is that the Karnoski case goes back to Judge Pechman for a fresh analysis of whether plaintiffs should be entitled to a preliminary injunction against the 2018 policy, using heightened scrutiny and taking account of privilege claims in the discovery process, along the lines outlined by the court.  This opinion also sends a message to the district court in Riverside, where similar government motions are pending.  Meanwhile, the discovery battles continue in the cases pending in Baltimore and Washington.

In light of the Trump Administration’s general policy of fighting against demands for disclosure of internal executive branch decision-making, whether by Congressional committees or litigants, it is difficult to predict when there will be sufficient discovery to provide a basis for further rulings on preliminary injunctions or the ultimate merits of the four court challenges.  The lawsuits succeed in blocking implementation of the total ban and the 2017 policy, and in delaying implementation of the 2018 policy for more than a year.

The litigation will not be finally resolved before Inauguration Day in January 2021 unless the Trump Administration is willing to negotiate some sort of compromise settlement satisfactory to the plaintiffs.  If any of the current Democratic presidential candidates is elected and takes office, a quickly-issued executive order restoring the 2016 policy could put an end to the entire transgender military service drama and restore sanity to an issue that has been clouded by politics and substantial misinformation, such as Trump’s recent grossly-exaggerated statements about the cost of health care for transgender personnel.

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New Jersey Judge Orders Shut-Down of “Alter Ego” of Former Conversion Therapy Group

Hudson County (NJ) Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso, Jr., issued a scathing opinion on June 10, ordering the immediate dissolution of an organization calling itself Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA) , based on his finding that JIFGA was an “alter ego” of “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality” (JONAH), a conversion therapy service that had been convicted of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act by a jury in Judge Bariso’s court on June 25, 2015.  Ferguson v. JONAH Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing f/k/a Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1336 (N.J. Super. Ct., Hudson Co.).

The jury verdict followed a lengthy trial in which “clients” of JONAH testified about the absurd and extreme treatments to which they were exposed.  Many of the clients were young people who were pushed into “therapy” with JONAH by their religiously-observant parents in a desperate attempt to “turn them straight.”  The jury verdict concluded that JONAH, its operators and those associated with it were engaged in consumer fraud, misrepresenting their ability to change a person’s sexual orientation.

After the jury verdict, the parties negotiated a settlement agreement, approved by the judge, under which JONAH was supposed to go out of business and pay substantial damages as reparation to the plaintiffs who had been defrauded.  Arthur Goldberg and other individual defendants were targeted by a permanent injunction issued by Judge Bariso, being “permanently enjoined from engaging, whether directly or through referrals, in any therapy, counseling, treatment or activity that has the goal of changing, affecting or influencing sexual orientation, “same sex attraction” or “gender wholeness,” or any other equivalent term, whether referred to as “conversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” “gender affirmation process” or any other equivalent term (“Conversion Therapy”), or advertising or promoting Conversion Therapy-related commerce in or directed at New Jersey or New Jersey residents.”

As part of the settlement agreement, which precluded an appeal by the defendants, the plaintiffs agreed to a lower level of damages than would otherwise be awarded by the court in exchange for defendants’ commitment to pay agreed-upon damages promptly and to put JONAH out of business and comply with the terms of the injunction, which was also binding on the named individual defendants.

But evidence presented by the plaintiffs in support of a March 2018 motion to enforce their rights under the settlement agreement persuaded the court that Goldberg was “blatantly” flouting the settlement agreement and violating the injunction by starting a new organization, JIFGA, to pick up where JONAH left off.  Baroso headed the first part of his findings: “There is clear and convincing evidence that defendants repeatedly violated the settlement agreement and the permanent injunction.”

The ink was barely dry on the signatures before Goldberg resumed making referrals to conversion therapy practitioners for people who called for assistance, and the damages agreed upon were not paid in full.  Goldberg claimed that he understood that the injunction only pertained to clients and therapists in New Jersey, and that he was receiving calls from out of state and referring the callers to therapists who practiced outside the state.  Bariso rejected this crabbed reading of the injunction, finding that there were no geographical “loopholes,” and referred to evidence showing that Goldberg had actually acknowledged in writing the possibility that his referrals were illegal.

Furthermore, the opinion documents Goldberg’s ambitions to take his conversion therapy promotion “global,” as indicated by the name of his new organization.  Wrote Bariso, “Goldberg’s use of his New Jersey non-profit organization has extended outside the United States.  In the spring of 2018, Goldberg reached out to Alan Alencar, a Brazilian leader of Joel 2:25 (conversion therapy organization modeled on JONAH).  In an email, Goldberg wrote, ‘after the demise of JONAH, I created the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness’ and offering to ‘be helpful down there to you.’  When Alencar responded that Joel 2:25 was planning to work on men with SSA [same-sex attraction] and start something similar to JIM [a conversion therapy weekend program], Goldberg jumped on the opportunity to discuss his experience working with ‘the SSA issue’ and how he could help.”  Goldberg put Alencar in touch with three conversion therapy providers in Brazil, and urged the creation of similar programs in Europe after returning from a conference on conversion therapy in Slovakia.

Bariso wrote that various Goldberg communications that surfaced through discovery on this motion “highlight the lies in Goldberg’s statement to this court that JIFGA has not worked ‘to promote commerce in conversion therapy.’”

As to the “alter ego” finding, Bariso wrote, “JONAH and JIFGA have the same co-founders and co-directors (Goldberg and [Elaine] Berk), occupy the same office, and are reachable at the same phone number and email addresses.  Arguably, they have the same name , as JIFGA is a recycled acronym that JONAH once used to market itself to a wider audience.  Through discovery, it was found that JIFGA plainly continues JONAH’s general operations and that JIFGA picked up where JONAH left off.”

Judge Bariso concluded that defendants had committed fraud on the court, “constituting criminal contempt of this court and its orders.”  The court found that Goldberg and JIFGA continued to make referrals to conversion therapy practitioners even as the motion was being litigated, and while they were representing to the court that they were complying with the injunction.

Bariso ruled that JIFGA would be made subject to the existing injunction against JONAH, and specified that “all communications channels in JIFGA’s control and use for JIFGA’s operations, including the email accounts and phone numbers from JONAH, must be terminated.  Goldberg and Berk are also enjoined from serving as directors or officers of or incorporating any tax-exempt entity incorporated in or having operations in New Jersey.”  Since the court found a violation of the settlement agreement, the requirement to pay damages at the full original rate was triggered, “a payment that could have been avoided by simply complying with the permanent injunction and the settlement agreement.”  The court also ordered the defendants to pay the plaintiff’s legal expenses of litigating this motion, which involved lots of discovery time.

However, Judge Bariso denied the plaintiffs’ request to hold the individual defendants in criminal contempt.  “This court seriously questions the direct falsities outlined in Goldberg’s certifications,” wrote Bariso, “along with his willingness to blatantly disobey the permanent injunction.  However, the remedies awarded to plaintiffs will serve the dual purpose of contempt hearings: to deter and to punish.  The inability for defendants to incorporate another tax-exempt entity in New Jersey will insure that defendants no longer use a similar platform to again violate the injunction and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.   Additionally, the monetary damages awarded to plaintiffs will deter defendants from defying this court’s orders.”

Based on his past conduct, it seems likely that Goldberg will try to devise new ways to defy the court’s orders without getting caught, so Judge Bariso’s concluding paragraph seems unduly optimistic and surprisingly naïve.

The plaintiffs are represented by Bruce D. Greenberg of Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC; David C. Dinielli, of Southern Poverty Law Center; and Lina Bensman of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP (New York).

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Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Oregon Wedding Cake Case, but Remands for “Further Consideration” in Light of Masterpiece Cakeshop

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. 18-547, on June 17, but at the same time vacated the Oregon Court of Appeals decision in the case, 289 Or. App. 507 (Dec. 28, 2017), and remanded the case to that court for “further consideration” in light of the Court’s decision last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  The Court did not issue any explanation for its ruling, beyond the direction of “further consideration” specifying Masterpiece Cakeshop as the ground for such consideration.

Both cases involved the question whether a baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple has a federal constitutional defense to a discrimination charge in the state administrative and judicial fora.  In both Oregon and Colorado, state law forbids discrimination because of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation, and businesses selling wedding cakes are definitely public accommodations under both laws.  Without ruling directly on the question presented in Masterpiece, the Supreme Court last year vacated the Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Commission rulings based on the Court’s conclusion that the Commission forum was “hostile to religion” as evidenced by statements by two of the Commissioners and “inconsistent” action on a religious discrimination charge by a provocateur who sought unsuccessfully to order anti-gay cakes from other bakers.

It takes at least four votes on the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari, but it takes at least five votes to vacate and remand a lower court ruling.  According to its usual practice, the Court did not specify how many justices voted for the cert grant or the “vacate and remand” order.

The issue on remand for the Oregon Court of Appeals appears to be whether some statements made by Brad Avakian, Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), evinced the kind of hostility to religion that the Supreme Court identified as problematic in the Masterpiece case.

When Melissa Klein, proprietor of Sweetcakes by Melissa, rejected a wedding cake order from Rachel and Lauren Bowman-Cryer on religious grounds, the women filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice and the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The media found the case newsworthy, resulting in interviews with Melissa Klein and her husband in which they sought to justify their action on religious grounds.  Commissioner Avakian reacted to the ensuing controversy by posting a statement to his Facebook page and speaking with The Oregonian, a wide-read newspaper in the state.

Avakian’s Facebook post included a link to a television station’s news story about the refusal of service and a statement: “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can disobey laws that are already in place.  Having one set of rules for everybody ensures that people are treated fairly as they go about their daily lives.”  The Oregonian subsequently quoted Avakian as saying that “everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that folks have the right to discriminate.”

Under BOLI’s procedures, an administrative law judge (ALJ) holds a hearing and issues a “proposed final order,” to which the parties can file “exceptions” as an appeal to the Commissioner.  Before the hearing in this case, the Kleins moved to disqualify Commissioner Avakian from taking any role in the case, arguing that his public statements had prejudged the case so he was not neutral.  The ALJ denied the motion to disqualify and went on to find that the Kleins had violated the statute by denying services to the couple “on account of” their sexual orientation, as prohibited by the statute.  The ALJ rejected the Kleins argument that they had not discriminated because of the women’s sexual orientation, or that their actions were protected by the First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion provisions.  But the ALJ also rejected BOLI’s argument that statements made by Mr. Klein during interviews were communicating a future intent to discriminate, which would itself violate a specific prohibition in the statute. Rather, the ALJ ruled, they were an account of the reasons for their denial of services in this case.  The ALJ ordered damages to the couple totaling $135,000, mainly for emotional suffering and having to put up with the media attention.

The Kleins and BOLI both filed exceptions to the ALJ’s proposed order. Commissioner Avakian affirmed the ALJ’s ruling on discrimination, but disagreed with the ruling on statement of future intent to discriminate.  Avakian concluded that the record supported the opposite finding, that the interviews and a sign taped to the bakery’s window communicated intent to discriminate on the same basis in the future, but he approved the ALJ’s proposed damage award without adding anything for this additional violation.  The Kleins then petitioned for judicial review.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision on discrimination, but rejected Commissioner Avakian’s reversal of the ALJ’s ruling on communicating an intention to discriminate in the future.  The court also rejected the Kleins’ argument on appeal that Avakian should have been disqualified from ruling on the case because of his Facebook and Oregonian interview statements. As to another flashpoint in the case, the court deemed the amount of damages awarded appropriate, noting that the amount was in line with damages awarded in other similar cases.  The Kleins sought review in the Oregon Supreme Court, but were turned down without comment.

The Kleins’ petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court mentions the issue of Avakian’s statements and the ALJ and Oregon court’s rejections of disqualification, but it does not focus on that issue in its statement of questions presented, even though the petition was filed months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop made that a potentially viable alternative route to getting the agency’s decision overturned.  Counsel for the Kleins, instead, were focused on getting the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1990 ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, in which the Court abandoned its long-established free exercise clause jurisprudence, substituting a rule that people have to comply with neutral state laws of general application – such as most anti-discrimination laws – even though complying might burden their free exercise of religion.   Their second “question presented” asked the Court to overrule Smith, and their third “question presented” asked the Court to “reaffirm” a “hybrid rights doctrine” suggested in dicta in Smith, where there would be more stringent judicial review in cases where other constitutional rights in addition to free exercise of religion were implicated.

The Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the Oregon Court of Appeals decision for “further consideration” by the state court suggests that there are not enough votes on the Court to reconsider Smith as of now, but we can’t know how many votes short the proponents on the Court of reconsidering Smith might be.  Smith has long been a controversial precedent.  The decision’s cutback on protection for religious objectors led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and many states to pass their own versions of that law.  But Smith has become a bulwark for vindicating the rights of same-sex couples to obtain wedding-related goods and services, as most courts confronted with the issue have concluded that such businesses do not have the right to deny them to same-sex couples.

The Kleins are represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, Boyden Gray & Associates of Washington, D.C., and Oregon local counsel Herbert G. Grey.  Ten amicus briefs, all urging the Court to grant the petition for certiorari, were filed by conservative and religious litigation and policy groups, many extolling the case as a vehicle for overturning Employment Division v. Smith.  Lambda Legal represented Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer with an amicus brief at the Oregon Court of Appeals.

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4th Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Gay Hate Crime Conviction

A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected a constitutional challenge by James William Hill, Jr., to his conviction under the federal Hate Crimes Act for assaulting a gay co-worker.  United States of America v. Hill, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 17731, 2019 WL 2454848.  According to Circuit Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., this was the first appellate case to take up the question whether the federal statute can be used to prosecute somebody “for an unarmed assault on a coworker engaged in commercial activity at his place of work.”  Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee argued strenuously in dissent that this application of the Hate Crimes Law exceeds Congress’s legislative authority.

Judge Wynn was appointed to the 4th Circuit by President Barack H. Obama.  Dissenting Judge Agee was appointed by President George W. Bush.  Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who voted with Wynn, was appointed by President William J. Clinton.

The facts of the case are simple and stark.  Curtis Tibbs was at work as a “packer” in the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester, Virginia, on May 22, 2015, loading items from bins into boxes, scanning them and placing them on a conveyor belt to the shipping department.  The defendant, Hill, worked as a “re-binner,” moving items from conveyor belts and placing them into bins along the wall.  The incident was caught on surveillance video which shows Hill, unprovoked, approaching Tibbs from behind and repeatedly punching him in the face.  Tibbs suffered significant bruising, cuts to his face, and a bloody nose.  Tibbs went to Amazon’s in-house clinic and then to the hospital for treatment, and did not return to work during the shift.

Amazon closed down the workstation to clean up the bloody mess and redistributed work to other areas in the center.  A witness from Amazon testified at Hill’s trial that the incident did not cause Amazon to miss any “critical pull times” or packaging deadlines, and notwithstanding the brief closure of that work station and Tibbs’ absence for the balance of the shift, the fulfillment center met its normal performance as a whole for the shift.

Hill was arrested and told the police that he hit Tibbs because Tibbs is gay.  Hill said that “his personal belief is he didn’t like [homosexuals]” and that Tibbs “disrespected him because he is a homosexual,” and that Hill “does not like homosexuals so he punched him.”  (The bracketed word is supplied by the court, undoubtedly substituted for a derogatory term for gay people.)

Because Virginia’s hate crimes law does not include sexual orientation, the local prosecutor could not prosecute Hill for a hate crime, just for ordinary assault and battery.  The prosecutor decided to refer this case to the U.S. Justice Department for potential prosecution under the federal Hate Crimes Law.  The Attorney General certified, as required by the federal law, that prosecution of Hill “is in the public interest and is necessary to secure substantial justice.”  The local prosecutor dismissed state charges and a federal grand jury indicted Hill, finding, among other things, that Hill “interfered with commercial and other economic activity in which Tibbs was engaged at the time of the conduct, and which offense otherwise affected interstate and foreign commerce.”

This finding was necessary because Congress’s authority under the Constitution does not extend to ordinary criminal activity, which is generally the province of state law.  The basis of Congress’s authority for the federal Hate Crimes Act is some connection to interstate commerce, which Article I specifically authorizes Congress to regulate.  Thus, not every hate crime is subject to federal prosecution, just those that come within the sphere of the Commerce Clause by their effect on commerce between the states.  If Hill had shot Tibbs using a gun that had moved interstate, the required connection could easily be made.

Hill defended against the charges by arguing that the federal Hate Crime Law is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him.  U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., focused on the “as applied” challenge, and granted Hill’s motion to dismiss the indictment, concluding that an assault by Hill using only his fists – not a weapon that had moved in interstate commerce – in the packing department of an internet retailer did not have sufficient effect on interstate commerce to come within Commerce Clause jurisdiction.

The Justice Department appealed to the 4th Circuit, which reversed, 2-1, in an unpublished opinion on August 18, 2017, stating that the question whether the Commerce Clause requirement was met required factual findings that could not be decided on a motion to dismiss but required development at trial.  The court sent the case back to Judge Gibney for trial, where a jury convicted Hill, based on the prosecution’s argument that Hill’s assault on Tibbs “interfered with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim was engaged at the time of the conduct.”

Hill filed a motion to set aside the verdict, renewing his argument that the government could not constitutionally prosecute him under the Hate Crimes Law, and again Judge Gibney agreed with him, setting aside the verdict.  The Justice Department appealed again, and the majority of the three-judge 4th Circuit panel voted to reverse the dismissal and order the district court to reinstate the verdict against Hill.

“The Government argues that, by ‘interfering’ with Tibbs’s packaging and shipping of products, Defendant’s conduct ‘substantially affected interstate commerce,’ as that phrase has been interpreted in decisions upholding federal prosecutions for robbery and extortion under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. Section 1951(a), and arson under 18 U.S.C. Section 844(i),” wrote Judge Wynn.  “We agree,” he continued, finding that Supreme Court rulings under other statutes had made clear that jurisdiction could be based on the cumulative effect of incidents that, by themselves, may not have had a significant commercial impact.

The Hobbs Act involves robberies and burglaries that affect interstate commerce.  Judge Wynn wrote that Taylor v. United States, a 2016 Supreme Court decision under the Hobbs Act, “establishes that, pursuant to its power under the Commerce Clause, Congress may proscribe violent conduct when such conduct interferes with or otherwise affects commerce over which Congress has jurisdiction.  Importantly, Congress may regulate violent conduct interfering with interstate commerce even when the conduct itself has a ‘minimal’ effect on such commerce.”  Judge Wynn reviewed in detail the Supreme Court’s rulings under several different federal criminal statutes to hammer home the point, concluding, “if individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation – as Tibbs was at the time of the assault – then Congress also may prohibit violent crime that interferes with or affects such individuals’ ongoing economic or commercial activity, including the type of bias-motivated assaults proscribed by the Hate Crimes Act.”

Hill’s argument turned on the clear evidence that his assault did not result in Amazon’s productivity being compromised during that shift.  Wynne responded, “That Amazon was able to absorb the impact of Tibbs’ absence without missing any key shipping deadlines and that the fulfillment center’s performance during the shift impacted by Tibbs’ assault was in-line with its performance during other shifts does not call into question this determination.  On the contrary, the Supreme Court and this Court repeatedly have clarified that congress may regulate interference with commerce, even if the effect of the interference on interstate commerce in an individual case is ‘minimal.’”

The rest of Wynn’s opinion expands in these ideas with numerous examples intended to counter Judge Agee’s dissenting arguments.

Judge Agee argued that the issue is not whether Tibbs was engaged in commercial activity at the time of the assault, but rather whether the bias-motivated “punch” in this case was “inherently economic activity,” which he argued it was not.  By comparison, burglary and arson were, in his view, inherently economic crimes, and thus their regulation when they affected interstate commerce came appropriately within Congress’s Commerce Clause power.  He also criticized Congress’s wording of the relevant statutory provision, arguing that it “does not limit the class of activities being regulated to acts that fall under Congress’s Commerce Clause power,” and thus exceeded Congress’s authority.  Judge Agee appeared to be reviving Hill’s argument that the hate crimes provision is unconstitutional on its face, not just as applied to Hill.  Judge Wynn explicitly rejected Agee’s argument that only “inherently economic activity” by a defendant could be regulated by Congress, citing examples from several cases.

The different views of Wynn and Agee are rooted in sharp differences on the Supreme Court as to the scope of the Commerce Power, which was dramatically shown by the famous decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012).   Challengers of the ACA claimed that Congress did not have power under the Commerce Clause to pass a statute requiring individuals to purchase health insurance coverage.  Defending the law, the Obama Administration argued that both the Commerce Clause and the Taxing Power could support Congress’s authority, since the ACA imposed various financial requirements akin to taxes, administered by the Internal Revenue Service.   In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by the four Republican appointees in finding that Congress did not have power to enact ACA under the Commerce Clause, but joined by the four Democratic appointees (with the other Republican appointees dissenting), Roberts found that the Taxing Power would support the ACA.

Roberts’ Commerce Clause ruling was in line with decisions by the Supreme Court during the 1990s, under the leadership of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, narrowing the Court’s interpretation of Commerce Clause jurisdiction, most notably striking down a federal law banning the possession of firearms within a certain proximity to public schools and voiding a key provision of the Violence Against Women Act.

The Court’s decisions narrowing Commerce Clause jurisdiction, usually by 5-4 votes, replay a dispute of the 1930s, when a narrow view of the Commerce Clause by conservative justices was used to strike down key statutes of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, leading the president to propose expanding the membership of the Court so that he could appoint some liberal justices who would vote to uphold New Deal legislation.  While the controversial legislation was pending in Congress, one of the conservative justices changed his position and voted to uphold some important New Deal legislation, taking the wind out of the sails of Roosevelt’s “Court Packing” bill. From then until the Rehnquist Court rulings, the Supreme Court allowed wide-ranging Commerce Clause jurisdiction.

President Donald J. Trump has placed three judges on the 4th Circuit, two of whom occupy seats previously held by Bush appointees, and one by a Clinton appointee.  President Obama placed six judges on the Circuit, giving it a decided center-left tilt that has not been substantially affected by Trump’s appointments, so an en banc 4th Circuit, if Hill seeks such review, is likely to reaffirm the panel decision.

As Judge Wynn observed, this ruling is the first by a federal appeals court to deal with the arguments about jurisdictional support for the Hate Crimes Law in a case involving an assault without weapons in a workplace, and the Supreme Court usually does not grant review on a constitutional issue where there is not “split” of circuit court authority, so an attempt for Supreme Court review by Hill would most likely not be granted.  If it were, however, consideration of this case by the Supreme Court could signal trouble for survival of the Hate Crimes Act and, depending how Justice Brett Kavanaugh votes, might provide more evidence about the degree to which his appointment has moved the Court on its Commerce Clause jurisprudence.  It is worth noting, however, that the man Kavanaugh replaced, Justice Anthony Kennedy, agreed with Chief Justice Roberts’ Commerce Clause holding in the Obamacare case, so Kavanaugh’s appointment would not necessarily move the needle on the Court, assuming he would agree with Chief Justice Roberts’ Commerce Clause holding, endorse by all the Republican appointees on the Court.

Since this is a criminal prosecution of a defendant without substantial means, the case was argued by the Justice Department’s appellate branch and the federal public defender in Virginia.  But the significant of the case drew amicus briefs, including one from Lambda Legal supporting the validity of the Hate Crimes Act.

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Botswana High Court Declares Sodomy Law Unconstitutional

The High Court of Botswana ruled on June 11 that three provisions of the country’s Penal Code that collectively make soliciting or participating in gay sex a crime violate several provisions of the Constitution.  The 2.4-million person republic, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, is centrally situated north of the border with South Africa.  Formerly known as the British “protectorate” of Bechuanaland, it achieved independent rule in 1965 and formally became the Republic of Botswana in 1966, adopting a Constitution with broad protection for human rights.

The Government has the right to appeal the High Court ruling to the Court of Appeal, a constitutional court whose membership consists mainly of judges from other British Commonwealth countries.  However, there were no immediate press reports about the intention of the Government to appeal, and last year, President Mokgweetsi Masisi delivered a speech “publicly signaling his support for same-sex relations” and arguing that LGBTQ citizens “deserved to have their rights respected,” according to a “Country Report” by The Economist Intelligence Unit published on-line on June 13, discussing the ruling.

The case challenging the constitutionality of the gay sex ban did not arise out of a prosecution.  Rather, a courageous individual, Letsweletse Motshdiemang, represented by three local attorneys, filed an application in the High Court seeking a declaration of the invalidity of law, arguing that it violated his constitutional rights.  According to the court’s opinion by Judge Michael Leburu, the Applicant is a 24-year-old student at the University of Botswana who identifies as “homosexual.”

Leburu’s opinion, describing the Applicant’s life, stated: “He does not know why he likes men and does not know why he is different from other men who love women.  He has accepted to live with that condition and it has become his identity.  Currently, he is in a sexually intimate relationship with a man.” Since the criminal laws authorize up to seven years in prison for gay sex, filing an explicit account of his developing sexual identity was very courageous on the Applicant’s part.  Throughout the litigation he was referred to by his initials as L.M., but the court’s June 11 decision names him in full, in recognition of the liberation the opinion brings for LGBTQ Batswana.  (“Batswana” is the term for citizens of the country.)

After the Applicant filed his lawsuit, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana, the nation’s LGBTQ rights organization usually referred to as LEGABIBO, was allowed to participate as amicus curiae (friend of the court) and supplied expert testimony in support of the lawsuit.

The court’s holding is well summarized by Judge Leburu in a few introductory sentences to the very lengthy opinion.  “Sections 164(a) and (c) and 165 of the Penal Code proscribe and criminalize sexual intercourse and/or attempt thereof between persons of the same sex and/or gender,” he wrote.  “Section 167 proscribes both public and private gross indecency.  What regulatory joy and solace is derived by the law, when it proscribes and criminalizes such conduct of two consenting adults, expressing and professing love to each other, within their secluded sphere, bedroom, confines and/or precinct?  Is this not a question of over-regulation of human conduct and expression, which has a tendency and effect of impairing and infringing upon constitutionally ordained, promised and entrenched fundamental human rights?  Our bill of rights, as entrenched and enshrined in our Supreme Law (the Constitution), is a manifestum of progressive, long lasting and enduring rights, which yearn for judicial recognition and protection.  Any limitation, in the enjoyment of such rights, therefore, ought to be reasonably justifiable within our hallowed democratic dispensation that subscribes to the rule of law, which recognizes and protects both the majority and minority rights and interests.”

A potential roadblock to victory in the case was a 2003 decision by the Court of Appeal, Kanane v. The State, which involved an actual prosecution of a gay man who appealed his conviction.  At that time, the Court of Appeal expressed the view that the country was not ready to accept homosexuality.  The new decision rejects Kanane, largely on the ground of changing public opinion and a variety of new constitutional arguments that had not been presented to the court in the older case.

Judge Leburu’s opinion emphasizes that the challenged laws were not of African origin, but rather were imported by the British during their administration of Bechuanaland, and were merely carried forward into the Botswana Penal Code during the 1960s as part of a general absorption of existing colonial law.  He also explained that the British laws were “traceable to the Bible,” recounting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and its traditional interpretation “during the Middle Ages” as a condemnation of gay sex, as amplified in certain New Testament passages.  “Within the British Empire,” he wrote, “same sex activity was prohibited as it was deemed morally unacceptable to the British rulers.  In the incorporation of the offence of sodomy in the colonies, such was not preceded by any consultation with the local populace.”

Judge Leburu noted subsequent developments in Britain, culminating with the parliamentary committee headed by Lord Wolfenden, whose report recommending decriminalization was approved in the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act “which decriminalized same sex sexual intercourse,” noting the spread of decriminalization, either through legislation or judicial action, in countries which had at one time been British colonies, including South Africa and the United States.

“The repeal of the sodomy laws was greatly influenced, in large measure, by the inherent recognition of such laws as being discriminatory, invasive of personal dignity, privacy, autonomy, liberty and lastly, the absence of compelling public interest to intrude and regulate private sexual expression and intimacy between consenting adults,” wrote Leburu.

One defining characteristic of judicial decisions of major importance in British Commonwealth countries is the practice of extensive quotation from court opinions of other Commonwealth nations, and Leburu’s opinion is strewn with such quotations, including from the recent Supreme Court of India ruling striking down that nation’s sodomy law, which had also been imposed originally during British colonial rule.  The opinion also refers to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state sodomy sodomy laws in 2003, as well as rulings from South Africa and Canada.

The opinion decisively rejects narrow, literalistic constitutional interpretation, instead embracing the court’s role in developing constitutional interpretation for changing times.  “In construing the Constitution,” Leburu wrote, “I will accord and give meaning and interpretation which would render it effective.  The Constitution should thus be given a generous construction, which will not unjustifiably erode civil liberties.  A Constitution ought to be interpreted according to the imperatives of the prevailing socio and political context.”  He also insisted that the courts should “have regard to any relevant international treaty, agreement or convention,” and listed several that have been invoked by other courts in cases invalidating sodomy laws.

At the outset of his analysis, he rejected the Applicant’s argument that the statues were “void for vagueness,” as judicial interpretation over time had made clear which acts were prohibited.  However, on every other contention, he found that the Applicant had the better argument than the Government, finding valid claims under the right to privacy (which is explicitly protected in the Botswana Constitution) and constitutional guarantees of liberty, equality and dignity.  He referred to these guarantees as a “triumvirate” that “forms the core values of our fundamental rights, as tabulated and entrenched in Section 3 of the Constitution.”  He explained how the challenged laws violate each of these basic concepts.

In a phrase that was widely quoted in news reports about the opinion, Leburu wrote, “Sexual orientation is innate to a human being.  It is not a fashion statement or posture.  It is an important attribute of one’s personality and identity; hence all and sundry are entitled to complete autonomy over the most intimate decisions relating to personal life, including the choice of a partner.  The right to liberty therefore encompasses the right to sexual autonomy.”  His reference for this statement is to a South African Law Journal article from 1993 by Edwin Cameron, an out gay man who has served as a judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court.  The opinion also quotes from writings of Michael Kirby, an out gay man who has served on Australia’s Supreme Court and also on Botswana’s Court of Appeal.

“By parity of reasoning and logic,” wrote Leburu, “the Applicant’s sexual orientation lies at the heart of his fundamental right to dignity.  It is his way of expressing his sexual feelings, by the only mode available to him. His dignity ought to be respected, unless lawfully restricted.”

Turning to the issue of discrimination, Leburu rejected the government’s argument that because the law was gender neutral and prohibited everybody from engaging in anal sex – the traditional interpretation of the “unnatural acts” language used in British colonial-era sodomy laws – it was not discriminatory.  Referring to arguments presented by LEGABIBO as amicus, Leburu wrote that “the nub and substance of the amicus case is that the provisions are discriminatory in effect, by denying him sexual expression and gratification, in the only way available to him, even if that way is denied to all.”  Heterosexuals have a legal sexual outlet, while homosexuals do not.

“It was further submitted,” he wrote, “that the word ‘sex’ in Section 3 of the Constitution should be generously and purposively interpreted to include ‘sexual orientation.’  On the basis of the formulated rules of constitutional construction or interpretation, I have no qualms whatsoever in determining that the word ‘sex’ in Section 3 thereof is generously wide enough to include and capture ‘sexual orientation,’ as I hereby determine.”  He referred to an earlier Court of Appeal ruling stating that the “enumerated grounds of discrimination” in the Constitution, which include “sex,” were “not hermetically sealed nor cast in stone.” This was because the framers of the Constitution intended to protect “all potentially vulnerable groups and classes, who would be affected for all time by discriminatory treatment.”  That earlier decision set out a view of living constitutionalism, contrary to “static” constitutional meaning championed in the United States by Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Furthermore, he wrote, “To buttress and fortify this amplification and expansion of the word ‘sex,’ our Parliament has, in its graceful and usual wisdom, recognized that there may be discrimination, at the workplace, on account of sexual orientation, as shown by the Employment (Amendment) Act No. 10 of 2010, which amendment made it unlawful to terminate employment on the grounds of, inter alia, sexual orientation and gender, per Section 23(d).”  Thus, ironically, Botswana made it illegal to discriminate because of sexual orientation nine years ago, without repealing the laws against gay sex.

“The two forms of discrimination — namely sex and sexual orientation — are associable signifiers of a similar scope and content,” he continued.  “The constitutional discrimination, based on sex, is of wider scope and application, where discrimination based on sexual orientation, in the Employment (Amendment) Act, is of a narrower campus.  ‘Sexual orientation’ is thus subset or component of ‘sex.’”  He cited a United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling condemning the sodomy law in the Australian state of Tasmania to support this point, ruling under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which, Leburu observed, Botswana had ratified in 2000.  And, he accepted the argument that the facially neutral laws are discriminatory in effect, and thus unconstitutional since unjustified by the Government.

Referring to the Government’s arguments, he wrote, “There is no scintilla or iota of justification, advanced for the derogation [of rights] in question  The only answer placed at the fore is that the impugned sections are not discriminatory, but, a contrario, this court has found otherwise.  The Respondent’s semblance of justification, can best be described as bare assertions and/or speculations that sexual anal penetration is contrary to public morality or public interest,” but such was not sufficient to justify violating a fundamental right.

Leburu then examined the morality argument in the absence of expert testimony from the Government.  “Even if the Respondent’s public interest or morality justification was to be subject to the criterion of ‘reasonable and justifiable in an open democratic society,’” he wrote, “such justification does not pass constitutional muster. The test of what is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society, is an objective one.  There is nothing reasonable and justifiable by discriminating against fellow members of our diversified society.  The State has failed to single out the objective that is intended to be satisfied by the impugned provisions.”

Furthermore, he noted that maintaining these laws was inconsistent with goals that had been identified in a nation-building exercise, called Botswana National Vision 2016, which included to be “A Compassionate, Just and Caring Nation,” and aspiring to be “an Open, Democratic and Accountable Nation” and “A Moral and Tolerant Nation.”  “To discriminate against another segment of our society pollutes compassion,” he insisted.  “A democratic nation is one that embraces plurality, diversity, tolerance and open-mindedness.  Democracy itself functions, so long as the differences between groups do not impair a broad substrate of shared values.  Our shared values are as contained in our National Vision.  Furthermore, the task of laws is to bring about the maximum happiness of each individual, for the happiness of each will translate into happiness for all.”

The opinion continues in this vein of somewhat high-flown rhetoric for several pages, concluding that the unnatural sex provisions should be stricken, and that the gross indecency provision (which had customarily been used to punish people for engaging in oral sex) should be limited to public acts, the word “private” to be stricken from the provision.  The court also ordered that the Government pay the Applicant’s costs of the litigation.

The courtroom in Gabarone, the nation’s capital, was crowded with LGBTQ activists when the opinion was announced by Judge Leburu, leading to an exuberant celebration.  Among those congratulating Botswana was the United States Department of State.  According to a June 13 report by Agence France Presse English Wire, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, using the preferred method of governmental communication during the Trump Administration, tweeted: “We are pleased by #Botswana’s High Court decision to decriminalize same-sex relationships – an historic moment in protecting human rights for all.  Congrats to the brave people who worked for this outcome.  We hope other countries follow Botswana’s example.”

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Washington State Supreme Court Unanimously Reaffirms Liability of Florist Who Refused Flowers for a Same-Sex Wedding

The nine-member Washington State Supreme Court refused on June 6 to back down from its earlier decision that Barronelle Stutzman and her business, Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., violated the state’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws on February 28, 2013, when she told Robert Ingersoll that she would not provide floral arrangements for his wedding to Curt Freed.  The court also ruled that Stutzman had no constitutional privilege to violate the state’s anti-discrimination law based on her religious beliefs.  State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., 2019 Wash. LEXIS 333, 2019 WL 2382063.

The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations, and the people of Washington voted in a referendum in 2012 to overrule a 5-4 adverse decision by their state supreme court and allow same-sex couples to marry.

Stutzman quickly announced that she would attempt to appeal the new ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which for several months has been pondering whether to grant review in another “gay wedding cake” case, from Oregon. She rejects the court’s opinion that that the Washington courts had “resolved this dispute with tolerance,” according to Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud’s opinion for the unanimous court.

The Washington court originally ruled on this case on February 16, 2017,see 167 Wash. 2d 804, but Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay litigation group representing Arlene’s Flowers, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that the state was violating Stutzman’s First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.  That petition reached the Supreme Court while it was considering the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the “gay wedding cake” case.

The U.S. Supreme Court had been asked in Masterpiece to reverse rulings by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which had ruled that baker Jack Phillips violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  Phillips argued on appeal that his 1st Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech were unconstitutionally violated by the state proceedings.  The Supreme Court ruled, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had not provided Phillips with a respectful, neutral forum to consider his religious freedom claim.  See 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  The Court reversed the Colorado court and commission rulings on that basis, focusing particularly on comments made by Commission members during the public hearing in the case, as well as the fact that at the time Phillips rejected the business, Colorado did not allow same-sex weddings so Phillips could have thought that he was not obligated to provide a wedding cake for such an event.  The Court did not rule directly on Phillip’s constitutional claims of privilege to violate the anti-discrimination statute, although it observed that in the past it had not accepted religious free exercise defenses to discrimination charges.

The Masterpiece decision was announced on June 4, 2018.  On June 6, ADF filed a Supplementary Petition with the Supreme Court, arguing that the case should be sent back to the Washington Supreme Court for “reconsideration” in light of Masterpiece.  In various different lawsuits, ADF has been trying to “spin” Masterpiece Cakeshop as what it is not: a decision that businesses have a 1st Amendment right to refuse to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings.  In its Supplementary Petition to the Court, however, reacting to the Court’s Masterpiece opinion, ADF asserted that Stutzman, like Colorado baker Jack Phillips, had been subjected to a forum that was “hostile” to her religious beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted ADF’s request, vacating the Washington Supreme Court’s 2017 decision and sending the case back with instructions to “further consider” the case “in light” of Masterpiece Cakeshop. The Washington court took exactly a year from the date of ADF’s Supplementary Petition to produce a lengthy decision explaining why there was no reason to change its original decision.

The Washington court was flooded with amicus briefs, as the U.S. Supreme Court had been, as many saw this as the next major “culture wars” case around the issue of same-sex marriage and religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws

After Stutzman told Ingersoll, a longtime customer of her business, she would not sell him flowers for his wedding, his fiancé, Freed, put up an indignant post on his Facebook page and the story went viral, quickly drawing the attention of the Attorney General’s office, which sent Stutzman a letter, asking for her to agree in writing not to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation.  She has argued throughout the case that she did not discriminate based on sexual orientation, as she had happily sold Ingersoll flowers in the past and would do so in the future, but not for a same-sex wedding due to her religious belief that marriage was only between a man and a woman.  When Stutzman refused to sign the statement requested by the letter, the Attorney General filed suit in Benton County Superior Court.  Several days later, Ingersoll and Freed filed their own lawsuit, represented by the ACLU of Washington, and the cases were consolidated by the court, which ruled against Stutzman on February 18, 2015.

Justice McCloud explained the Washington Supreme Court’s understanding of the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece: “In Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Supreme Court held that the adjudicatory body tasked with deciding a particular case must remain neutral; that is, the adjudicatory body must ‘give full and fair consideration’ to the dispute before it and avoid animus toward religion.  Disputes like those presented in Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene’s Flowers ‘must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.’”

Under this standard, wrote McCloud, there was no basis for the Washington court to change its opinion.  “We have painstakingly reviewed the record for any sign of intolerance on behalf of this court or the Benton County Superior Court, the two adjudicatory bodies to consider this case,” she wrote.  “After this review, we are confident that the two courts gave full and fair consideration to this dispute and avoided animus toward religion.”

Because the Supreme Court had vacated the earlier decision, however, the court’s new opinion incorporates its entire analysis from the earlier decision.  In a footnote, Justice McCloud wrote, “The careful reader will notice that starting here, major portions of our original (now vacated) opinion are reproduced verbatim.”

However, the opinion also responds to arguments that ADF tried to make building on Masterpiece, attempting to persuade the court that Stutzman was sued because of hostility to her religious beliefs by the Attorney General.  The court refused to take the bait.  McCloud wrote, “Apparently realizing the limits of Masterpiece Cakeshop, appellants attempt to stretch its holding beyond recognition and to relitigate issues resolved in our first opinion and outside the scope of Masterpiece Cakeshop.  We reject this attempt and instead comply with the Supreme Court’s explicit mandate to ‘further consider’ our original judgment ‘in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop.’”

Consistent with that, the court denied motions by both ADF and the Attorney General’s office to supplement the record, finding that the additional materials being offered to the court were not relevant to the task it had been set by the Supreme Court.

ADF was trying to make something of an entirely unrelated incident that occurred while this case was pending, when it was reported that the owner of a café in Seattle had “expelled a group of Christian customers visiting his shop” but that despite publicity to the incident the Attorney General had not taken any action against the owner of the café.  ADF sought to draw an analogy to an incident Justice Kennedy relied upon in concluding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile to religion.  The Commission had refused to proceed against several Colorado bakers who had rejected an order from a provocateur named William Jack, who sought to order cakes inscribed with anti-gay symbolism.  “The crux of appellants’ argument is that the attorney general sought to enforce the WLAD in the case before us but not in the incident at the coffee shop,” wrote McCloud, “revealing ‘hostility towards Mrs. Stutzman’s beliefs.’”

The Washington court agreed with Ingersoll and Freed, who argued that the attorney general’s response to the coffee shop incident was irrelevant.  That was a prosecutorial decision, not an adjudicatory decision.  “As discussed above,” wrote McCloud, ‘the Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop held that the adjudicatory body tasked with deciding a particular case must remain neutral. That Court was explicitly sensitive to the context in which the lack of neutrality occurred: during the adjudication by the adjudicatory body deciding the case.”  The Attorney General here was acting as attorney for a party in the case – the state of Washington – and not as an adjudicator.

“It would take a broad expansion of Masterpiece Cakeshop to apply its holding – that the adjudicatory body hearing a case must show religious neutrality – to a party.  That is especially true here, where the party supposedly exhibiting antireligious bias is Washington’s attorney general,” wrote McCloud.  “By arguing that Masterpiece Cakeshop’s holing about adjudicatory bodies applies to the attorney general’s enforcement decision, appellants essentially seek to revive their selective-enforcement claim, a claim that was rejected by the superior court, and abandoned on appeal.”

The court pointed out that prosecutorial discretion leaves it to the judgment of prosecutors deciding which cases to bring. “Courts are wary to question a prosecutor’s decision of which claims to pursue and thus generally ‘presume that prosecutors have properly discharged their official duties.’”  The court rejected ADF’s seeming argument that selective enforcement claims implicating free exercise of religion defenses should not be subjected to the same “demanding standard to which all other selective-enforcement claims are subject.”

The court also pointed out that because this is a consolidation of two cases, ADF’s argument is beside the point, since it has nothing to do with plaintiffs Ingersoll and Freed.  A “selective enforcement” claim has no relevance to a lawsuit brought by private individuals who are victims of discrimination.

Most of the court’s opinion, however, was devoted to restating the legal analysis from its 2017 decision, finding that the First Amendment and Washington state constitutional provisions did not provide a shield for Stutzman against the discrimination charges.  Interestingly, the Washington courts have found that their state constitution provides greater protection for free speech and free exercise of religion than the U.S. Supreme Court has found in the 1st Amendment, but even under those more demanding standards, the court rejected Stutzman’s state constitutional defenses.  The state has a compelling interest to prevent discrimination by businesses, reiterated the court.

“Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” McCloud concluded.  “We therefore hold that the conduct for which Stutzman was cited and fined in this case – refusing her commercially marketed wedding floral services to Ingersoll and Freed because theirs would be a same-sex wedding – constitutes sexual orientation discrimination under the WLAD.  We also hold that the WLAD may be enforced against Stutzman because it does not infringe any constitutional protection.  As applied in this case, the WLAD does not compel speech or association.”  And, even if the court assumed that application of the WLAD “substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise,” that did not violate the First Amendment or the analogous provision 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.”

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Texas Federal Court Will Allow Surviving Same-Sex Partner to Replead Claim for Death Benefits

On May 21, U.S. District Judge Jane J. Boyle issued a ruling in a complicated employee benefits case involving a same-sex partner’s claim to benefits under the employment-related life insurance policy of his late partner.  Ford v. Freemen, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85178, 2019 WL 2189256 (N.D. Tex.).  The ruling concerned the part of the case in which Rodney Ford sought to hold either Bank of America (BoA) or Prudential Life Insurance Company (Prudential) liable for over $700,000.00, the amount in contention as between Ford and his late partner’a father, to whom Prudential had paid on the Policy.  This ruling did not concern Ford’s claim against Otis Freemen, his late partner’s father.

Rodney Ford and David Freemen lived together as same-sex partners when Freemen worked for MBNA Bank.  MBNA provided a life insurance policy as an employee benefit.  In 1996, Freemen completed a beneficiary designation form designating Ford as “100% beneficiary” under the policy.  Freemen continued actively to work for MBNA until 2005, when he left active active employment on long-term disability.  From 2005 until Freemen died in October 2016, Ford alleges that MBNA, and then Bank of America (BoA), which purchased MBNA and took over its obligations to MBNA employees and retirees, and Prudential, the issuer of the life-insurance policy, periodically sent David Freemen information confirming his insured status and that Ford was his beneficiary on the policy.  However, Ford claims, sometime before Freemen died, he “cleaned out” these documents, as a result of which they were not available to Ford after Freemen’s death.

Ford contacted Prudential and BoA to claim survivor benefits under various employee benefit plans, including this life insurance policy.  Prudential responded that there was no beneficiary designation on the life insurance Policy and advised Ford to contact BoA to obtain the original records.  Ford then called BoA and spoke with an HR representative, Kecia Atkins, who told him that she “found your name, but could not (would not) certify that the beneficiary designation applied to the Policy,” according to the allegations of Ford’s complaint.  Ford also alleged that Atkins “stated unequivocally that there was no beneficiary form showing Ford as beneficiary of the Policy.”  Ford then contacted Prudential to ask what would happen in the absence of a written beneficiary designation and was told, accurately, that under the policy the proceeds would go to Freemen’s heirs, meaning, in this instance, his father, Otis Norman Freemen.  The Prudential representative also told him that if he could prove he was a surviving spouse under Texas law, he would take priority over Otis Freemen, but since Rodney and David had not married after Obergefell v. Hodges was decided in 2015, that would mean he would have to prove he was a surviving common law spouse, a difficult but not necessarily impossible task.

Ford decided that rather than go through that, he would approach Otis Freemen to see if they could work out an agreement.  He alleges that Freemen agreed to obtain the proceeds of the policy as heir to his son, and then pay them over to Ford.  The opinion does not mention any further details about this alleged agreement, only to say that Otis Freemen received the death benefit payout and, instead of turning it over to Ford, used to it pay off a mortgage and other debts.  Based on the court’s reference to this as an “alleged” agreement, one infers that a copy of a written agreement was not attached as an exhibit to Ford’s complaint.

In February 2017, Ford filed suit in Texas state court against Freemen, alleging breach of contract for Freemen’s failure to pay over the proceeds from the Policy.  While this litigation was going on, Ford alleges, BoA responded to a discovery subpoena for the Policy records and, lo and behold, the records “showed Ford as the sole 100% beneficiary of the Policy based on the 1996 designation.”  Ford amended his state law complaint to add claims against BoA and Prudential, and they quickly removed the action to federal court, resting jurisdiction on Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  Since the Policy was provided under an employee benefits plan, it is governed by ERISA.  Then BoA and Prudential moved to dismiss the claims against them, citing ERISA preemption of state law claims and failure by Ford to exhaust administrative remedies under the Policy by filing a claim and appealing any resulting denial as provided in the Policy.  Judge Boyle’s May 21 opinion addresses these motions by the bank and the insurance company.

ERISA expressly preempts all state laws relating to an employee benefits plan.  Under Supreme Court precedents, “state laws” are broadly construed to include common law claims, such as breach of contract or negligence.  The court addressed separately the preemption defenses advanced by BoA and Prudential.

The essence of the state law claim against BoA was negligent misrepresentation.  Ford claimed that Atkins failed to take reasonable care to find the relevant records, which only surfaced later in response to the subpoena, and that Ford had relied upon Atkins’ misrepresentation when he decided to forego attempting to prove surviving spouse status and instead to make a deal with Otis Freemen to obtain the benefit and pay it over to Ford.  The issue for the court was whether Ford’s claim against BoA could be held to “affect an employee benefits plan,” which turned on whether it might be conceptualized as an ERISA claim, in which case the state law claim he had asserted in his complaint would be preempted.  Judge Boyle explained two kinds of ERISA preemption, “complete preemption” and “conflicts preemption,” and explained why she concluded that both theories produced the same result: the state law claim was preempted.  Instead, Ford would have to assert that BoA had violated his rights under ERISA by providing misinformation and failing to verify the beneficiary designation upon David’s death and Ford’s inquiry.  Dismissal of the negligent misrepresentation claim would not necessarily deprive Ford of his cause of action against BoA.  Judge Boyle found it appropriate to dismiss the state law claim, but to allow Ford quickly to replead his claim against BoA as a federal claim under the pertinent provision of ERISA, giving him thirty days to do so.

Turning to Prudential, the court found that Ford has no viable ERISA claim against Prudential.  ERISA would automatically preempt any attempt by Ford to assert a breach of contract claim against Prudential on the assertion that Prudential paid the benefit to the wrong person.  As the issuer of the insurance policy, Prudential was required under ERISA to interpret and apply the Policy according to its terms.  Having been advised by Ford that he did not have a beneficiary designation, Prudential applied the relevant Policy terms to pay out the proceeds to David’s father.  In the absence of any evidence of bad faith by Prudential, it could not be held liable under ERISA.  “Plaintiff chose not to pursue a claim for benefits under the Policy with Prudential,” wrote Boyle, “but instead entered into an agreement with Freemen where he would receive the Policy’s proceeds and then give the proceeds to Plaintiff.  In Plaintiff choosing this path, Prudential did what it was required to do under the Policy – and what Plaintiff expected them to do – it paid the Policy’s proceeds to Freemen since there was no beneficiary designee and no claim by the Decedent’s spouse or children.”  Thus, the complaint failed to state a claim against Prudential under ERISA.

Both BoA and Prudential had also sought dismissal on grounds of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  ERISA requires that employee benefit plans have a process of handling claims and providing for appeals of claim denials.  Ford did not try to invoke these procedures, instead merely adding BoA and Prudential as defendants in his state court lawsuit against Freemen two years after the death of his partner.  Ford argued that BoA’s exhaustion argument was “misplaced because BoA has failed to show that the Policy required him to make a claim with BoA, as opposed to the plan-administrator, Prudential,” wrote Boyle.  “In its Reply, BoA does not respond to this argument or make additional exhaustion arguments . . .  the Court does not find it appropriate to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims against BoA for failure to allege exhaustion of administrative remedies at the motion-to-dismiss stage” because, among other things, exhaustion is an affirmative defense, and it would be premature to deal with it at this stage of the case.  For another, of course, courts have recognized exceptions to the exhaustion requirement where a beneficiary had a “valid reason” for failing to exhaust administrative remedies.  “Although discovery will be needed to determine the applicability of this and other potential exceptions to the exhaustion requirement,” wrote Boyle, “the Court finds that the allegations in Plaintiff’s Complaint and the unique circumstances of this case are sufficient to infer that an exception to exhausting administrative remedies may be appropriate in this case.”

Turning to Prudential, however, the court found that this was an additional reason to grant Prudential’s motion to dismiss.  “Prudential’s position as to who is entitled to the Policy’s proceeds has remained the same from the time Plaintiff called Prudential following the Decedent’s death to the present day – absent a beneficiary designee, the Policy’s proceeds would be paid out to the Decedent’s spouse, and if none, to the Decedent’s heirs.  Prudential’s current position is not that it would have refused any claim by Plaintiff, but that the time to make a claim was when it originally advised Plaintiff of the proper claim process after the Decedent’s death and prior to filing suit.”  The judge noted that Ford had not alleged that Prudential’s policy was discriminatory, or that it would have refused to pay out if he had attempted to “prove up” his common law spouse status, and “there are no allegations that Prudential was hostile or biased against Plaintiff’s attempt to collect the Policy’s proceeds.”  The bottom line — Prudential is out of the case, because it did just what a Plan administrator is supposed to do: administer the Policy according to its terms.

The court gave Ford, who is represented by counsel – Tom C. Clark of Clark, Malouf & White LLP, Dallas – thirty days to amend his Complaint to convert the dismissed state law claim into a federal claim under ERISA.  The court did not give Ford leave to replead against Prudential.   The judge explained, “The Court finds that allowing Plaintiff the opportunity to replead against Prudential would be futile because Plaintiff would in essence have to contradict many of the allegations and arguments he currently asserts against Prudential in order to state a viable [ERISA] claim.”  Of course, the case continues against Otis Freemen, giving Ford alternative theories to pursue in seeking to recover the $726, 299.18 (presumably plus interest) at stake in this case.

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United States Supreme Court Refuses to Review Transgender Bathroom Case from Boyertown, Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court announced on May 28 that it will not review a decision by the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which had rejected a constitutional and statutory challenge by cisgender students at Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Senior High School, who were upset that the School District decided to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District & Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, 897 F.3d 518 (3rd Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 2257330 (May 28, 2019).

The federal lawsuit stemmed from a decision in 2016 by the School District to permit transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.  Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and local attorneys affiliated with the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg filed suit on behalf of several cisgender students, proceeding under pseudonyms, contending that this decision violated their rights on three theories: constitutional right of bodily privacy under the 14th Amendment, creation of a “hostile environment” in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal funds, and violation of the right of privacy under Pennsylvania state common law.  Upon filing their complaint, the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith (E.D. Pa.) to issue a preliminary injunction to block the school district’s policy while the case was pending.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s National LGBT Rights Project joined the case, representing the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened as a co-defendant to help the School District defend its policy.

This case is part of a national campaign by ADF to preserve and defend restrictions on restroom and locker room use by transgender students, part of ADF’s overall goal – consistent with the Trump Administration’s anti-transgender policies – to deprive transgender people of any protection under federal law.  So far, ADF has lost a succession of “bathroom” cases, and the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in this case was one of its most notable defeats.  At the same time, however, the Education Department under the leadership of Trump’s appointee, Betsy De Vos, has reversed the Obama Administration’s policy and now refuses to investigate discrimination claims by transgender students under Title IX, leaving it up to individuals to file lawsuits seeking protection under the statute.

Judge Smith refused to issue the requested preliminary injunction on August 25, 2017, 276 F. Supp. 3d 324, writing an extensive decision that concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of any of their theories, and that mere exposure to transgender students was not going to impose an irreparable injury on them anyway.   Judge Smith was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, but it was noteworthy that at his Senate confirmation vote, he received more votes from Republican Senators than Democratic Senators.

Plaintiffs appealed to the 3rd Circuit, and suffered a loss before a unanimous three judge panel, which issued its decision on June 18, 2018.  The opinion was written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the panel were Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz, who was appointed by President Obama to fill the vacancy created by Circuit Judge Marion Trump Barry, President Trump’s sister, when she took senior status; and Senior Circuit Judge Richard Nygaard, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Judge McKee’s opinion set the stage with an extended discussion of gender identity based on the expert testimony offered by defendants in opposition to the motion for preliminary relief, including a much-cited amicus brief by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, which stated that policies excluding transgender students from “privacy facilities” consistent with their gender identities “have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health, safety, and well-being of transgender individuals.”  Judge McKee also quoted from an amicus brief filed by National PTA and Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), that forcing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity causes “severe psychological distress often leading to attempted suicide.”  In other words, the starting point for the court’s discussion was that the School District’s policy was responding to a serious problem faced by transgender students.

The court noted that as part of its policy the School District had renovated its “privacy facilities” to increase the privacy of individual users, and had provided single-user restrooms open to any student so that students who did not want to share facilities with others because of their gender identity would not be forced to do so.   The District also required that students claiming to be transgender meet with counselors trained to address the issue, and go through a process of being approved to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  “Once a transgender student was approved to use the bathroom or locker room that aligned with his or her gender identity,” wrote Judge McKee, “the student was required to use only those facilities,” although any student was allowed to use the single-user restrooms.  “The student could no longer use the facilities corresponding to that student’s birth sex.”

The plaintiffs claimed that their right to privacy was violated because the school’s policy permitted them to be viewed by members of the opposite sex while partially clothed.  The 3rd Circuit found that Judge Smith “correctly found that this would not give rise to a constitutional violation because the School District’s policy served a compelling interest – to prevent discrimination against transgender students – and was narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The court pointed out that privacy rights under the Constitution are not absolute.  Furthermore, wrote McKee, “the School District’s policy fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and that, as the National Education Association’s amicus brief “convincingly explains, these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.”

While the court empathized with cisgender students who experienced “surprise” at finding themselves “in an intimate space with a student they understood was of the opposite biological sex” – an experience specifically evoked in the plaintiffs’ brief in support of their motion – the court said, “We cannot, however, equate the situation the appellants now face with the very drastic consequences that the transgender students must endure if the school were to ignore the latter’s needs and concerns.”  And, the court pointed out, cisgender students “who feel that they must try to limit trips to the restroom to avoid contact with transgender students can use the single-user bathrooms in the school.”  The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the best solution to the issue was to require transgender students to use the handful of single-user restrooms, finding that this would “significantly undermine” the District’s compelling interest in treating transgender students in a non-discriminatory manner.

The court also pointed out that the plaintiffs’ privacy arguments sought to push that doctrine far beyond anything supported by existing case law. The court rejected analogies to cases involving inappropriate strip searches and peeping toms.  “Those cases involve inappropriate conduct as well as conduct that intruded into far more intimate aspects of human affairs than here.  There is simply nothing inappropriate about transgender students using the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity” under the School District’s policy, insisted the court, which also found that the “encounters” described by the plaintiffs did not involve transgender students doing “anything remotely out of the ordinary” while using the “privacy facilities” at the school.

As a result of these findings, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their privacy claims under Title IX, the Constitution, or Pennsylvania tort law.  Further, looking to “hostile environment sex discrimination” claims under Title IX (and the more developed hostile environment case law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers employment discrimination and serves as a resource for courts interpreting Title IX), the court found that the possibility of encountering transgender students in a restroom failed to meet the high test set by the courts of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”  The possibility of occasionally encountering one of a handful of transgender students in a “privacy facility” fell far short of meeting that test.

Furthermore, the court found that the District’s policy was “sex-neutral” in that it applied to everybody, and asserted that plaintiffs had not “provided any authority” for the proposition that a “sex-neutral policy” would violate Title IX.  “The School District’s policy allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity,” wrote McKee. “It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not violate Title IX.”

The court drew support for its conclusion from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit against the Kenosha, Wisconsin, school district, where the court found that excluding a transgender boy from using the boys’ restroom facilities did violate Title IX.  See Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017). Consistent with that ruling, the Boyertown School District’s policy could be seen as mandated by its obligation under Title IX to provide equal educational access and opportunities to transgender students.  The court also noted transgender rights rulings by the 1st, 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits, concluding that anti-transgender discrimination in a variety of contexts violates federal laws forbidding sex discrimination.  There is an emerging consensus among federal courts of appeals along these lines.  The validity of this reasoning will be up for Supreme Court debate next Term when the Court reviews the 6th Circuit’s decision in favor of Aimee Stephens, the transgender employment discrimination plaintiff in the Harris Funeral Homes case, to be argued in the fall.

The plaintiff’s petition to the Supreme Court to review the Boyertown decision posed two questions to the Court: “Whether a public school has a compelling interest in authorizing students who believe themselves to be members of the opposite sex to use locker rooms and restrooms reserved exclusively for the opposite sex, and whether such a policy is narrowly tailored,” and “Whether the Boyertown policy constructively denies access to locker room and restroom facilities under Title IX ‘on the basis of sex.’”  These questions were phrased by ADF to incorporate its religiously-based beliefs seeking to discredit the reality of transgender existence, similar to attempts by the Trump Administration in its proposed regulations and policy statements.  If the Court had been tempted to grant this petition, it would likely have reworded the “Questions Presented,” as it pointedly did when it granted ADF’s petition to review the Harris Funeral Homes decision on April 22.

Although the decision not to review a court of appeals case does not constitute a ruling on the merits by the Supreme Court and does not establish a binding precedent on lower courts, it sends a signal to the lower courts, the practicing bar, and the parties.  In this case, the signal is important for school districts to hear as they try to navigate between the rulings by courts in favor of transgender student claims and the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama Administration policy on this issue.  The question whether Title IX mandates the Boyertown School District’s access policy was not squarely before the Court in this case, and the justices may have denied review because they were already committed to consider whether federal sex discrimination laws cover gender identity discrimination in the Harris Funeral Homes case.

The Court normally provides no explanation why it grants or denies a petition for review although, interestingly, in another announcement on May 28, the Court did provide such a rare explanation in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, 2019 WL 2257160 (Sup. Ct., May 28, 2019).  In Box, the Court denied review of a decision by the 7th Circuit striking down on constitutional grounds an Indiana law that prohibits health care providers from providing abortions that are motivated solely by the sex, race or disability of the fetus, stating: “Only the Seventh Circuit has thus far addressed this kind of law.  We follow our ordinary practice of denying petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals.”  The implication for the Boyertown case is that the 3rd Circuit opinion may have been denied review because it was the only federal appeals court ruling to address the precise question before the Court.

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Federal Court Rejects Christian Agency’s Claimed Constitutional Right to Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples Seeking to Adopt Children

U.S. District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino has rejected a Christian social welfare agency’s bid to be exempted from complying with non-discrimination regulations promulgated by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).  Ruling on May 16 in New Hope Family Services, Inc. v. Poole, 2019 WL 2138355, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2138355 (N.D.N.Y.), the court rejected a variety of constitutional arguments advances by the plaintiff in support of its claim of a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to adopt children.

The plaintiff, New Hope Family Services, is an “authorized agency” with the authority to “place out or to board out children” and “receive children for purposes of adoption” under the New York Social Services Law and regulations adopted by the Office of Children and Family Services.  Under the law, the agency must “submit and consent to the approval, visitation, inspection and supervision” of OCFS, which must approve the agency’s certificate of incorporation.  Pastor Clinton H. Tasker founded New Hope in 1958 “as a Christian ministry to care for and find adoptive homes for children whose birth parents could not care for them,” wrote Judge D’Agostino.  Because of its religion beliefs, New Hope “will not recommend or place children with unmarried couples or same sex couples as adoptive parents,” it states in its complaint.  New Hope’s “special circumstances” policy states: “If the person inquiring to adopt is single . . . the Executive Director will talk with them to discern if they are truly single or if they are living together without benefit of marriage… because New Hope is a Christian Ministry it will not place children with those who are living together without the benefit of marriage.  If the person inquiring to adopt is in a marriage with a same sex partners . . . the Executive Director will explain that because New Hope is a Christian Ministry, we do not place children with same sex couples.”

Prior to 2010, New York’s Domestic Relations Law provided that authorized agencies could place children for adoption only with “an adult unmarried person or an adult husband and his adult wife.”  In September 2010, New York amended the law to allow placements with “an adult unmarried person, an adult married couple together, or any two unmarried adult intimate partners together.”  After New York adopted its Marriage Equality law in 2011, OCFS issued a letter on July 11, 2011, stating that the intent of its regulations “is to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the adopting study assessment process.  In addition, OFCS cannot contemplate any case where the issue of sexual orientation would be a legitimate basis, whether in whole or in part, to deny the application of a person to be an adoptive parent.”  In 2013, the adoption regulations were amended to prohibit outright discrimination “against applicants for adoption services on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, religion, or disability.”  OCFS followed this up with an “informational letter” in 2016, advising authorized agencies to formalize their non-discrimination policies consistent with the regulations.

In its complaint challenging these developments, New Hope (represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT religious litigation group) claims, according to Judge D’Agostino, that the agency promulgated these regulations “purporting to require adoption providers to place children with unmarried and same-sex couples in complete disregard for the law, the scope of OFCS’s authority, and the rights of adoption providers.”

The lawsuit stemmed from action by OFCS, contacting New Hope early in 2018 to inform the agency that “under a new policy implemented in 2018, OFCS would be conducting comprehensive on-site reviews of each private provider’s procedures,” and following up in mid-July with an email to schedule New Hope’s program review, including a list of things that had to be reviewed, including New Hope’s “policies and procedures.”  OFCS requested a copy of New Hope’s formal policies and procedures as part of this review.  Later in 2018, after reading New Hope’s procedures, OFCS Executive Director Suzanne Colligan called New Hope, noting the “special circumstances” provision, and informing new Hope that it would “have to comply” with the regulations “by placing children with unmarried couples and same-sex couples,” and that if New Hope did not comply, it would be “choosing to close.”  New Hope ultimately refused to comply after a series of email and letter exchanges with OFCS.

New Hope filed its complaint on December 6, 2018, claiming 1st and 14th amendment protection for its policies, claiming that OFCS’s interpretation of state law “targets, show hostility toward, and discriminates against New Hope because of its religious beliefs and practices” and also violates New Hope’s freedom of speech.  The complaint also alleged an equal protection violation, and claimed that the state was placing an “unconstitutional condition” by requiring New Hope to comply with the non-discrimination policy in order to remain an “authorized agency.”  The complaint sought preliminary injunctive relief against enforcement of the policy.

New Hope tried to escape the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which holds that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with neutral state laws of general application, by relying on a statement in Hosannah-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), in which the Supreme Court held that the 1st Amendment protects religious institutions from government interference in their selection of ministerial personnel.  New Hope argued that “cases teach that even a genuinely ‘neutral law of general applicability’ cannot be applied when to do so would interfere in historically respected areas of religious autonomy.”  New Hope claimed that the state regulation was adopted “for the purpose of targeting faith-based adoption ministries” and thus was “not neutral or generally applicable as applied.”

Judge D’Agostino was not convinced, referring to a decision by the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia rejecting similar arguments by Catholic Social Services in that city in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 320 F. Supp. 3d 661 (E.D. Pa. 2019), which has been affirmed by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, 922 F.3d 140 (April 22, 2019).  The judge observed that the courts in the Philadelphia case had found similar requirements under a Philadelphia anti-discrimination ordinance to be “facially neutral and generally applicable” and “rationally related to a number of legitimate government objectives.”  And, she noted, “In affirming the district court, the Third Circuit rejected CSS’s claims that the application of the anti-discrimination clause is impermissible under Smith and its progeny.”  Judge D’Agostino found the 3rd Circuit’s ruling persuasive in this case.

“On its face,” wrote the judge, “18 N.Y.C.R.R. sec. 421.3(d) is generally applicable and it is plainly not the object of the regulation to interfere with New Hope’s, or any other agency’s, exercise of religion.”  She found that the requirement to comply is imposed on all authorized agencies, “regardless of any religious affiliation,” and that it is neutral.  “Nothing before the Court supports the conclusion that section 421.3(d) was drafted or enacted with the object ‘to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation.”  The adoption of the requirement was a natural follow-up to the legislature’s passage of a law that codified “the right to adopt by unmarried adult couples and married adult couples regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The purpose was to prohibit discrimination.

The court also rejected the argument that the regulations are not neutral because they allow agencies to take account of a variety of factors in evaluating proposed adoptive parents, including “the age of the child and of the adoptive parents, the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of the child and the capacity of the adoptive parent to meet the needs of the child with such background as one of a number of factors used to determine best interests.”  As the 3rd Circuit found in Fulton, there is a significant difference between a policy of outright refusal to place children with unmarried or same-sex couples and the application of an evaluative process focusing on the characteristics described in the regulations.  “Further,” wrote D’Agostino, “nothing in the record suggests that OCFS has knowingly permitted any other authorized agency to discriminate against members of a protected class.”

New Hope also argued that the enforcement of the regulation was not neutral, instead evincing hostility against religious agencies such as itself.  Rejecting this argument, the judge wrote, “The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” quoting key language from the 3rd Circuit: “If all comment and action on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well.”

The court also rejected New Hope’s argument that the regulation violates the Free Speech clause of the 1st Amendment “insofar as it forces New Hope to change the content of its message” and to affirmatively recommend same-sex couples to be adoptive parents, in effect imposing an “unconstitutional condition” on New Hope.  The essence of the analysis is that designating New Hope an “authorized agency” for this purpose is delegating a governmental function to New Hope, and any speech in which New Hope engages to carry out that function is essentially governmental speech, not New Hope’s private speech as a religious entity.  “Therefore,” she wrote, “OCFS is permitted to ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message,’ that adoption and foster care services are provided to all New Yorkers consistent with anti-discrimination policy set forth” in the regulation, “was and is ‘neither garbled nor distorted by New Hope.’”  She concludes that “OCFS is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey.  New Hope is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same sex couples.  Rather, the only statement being made by approving such couples as adoptive parents is that they satisfy the criteria set forth by the state, without regard to any views as to the marital status or sexual orientation of the couple.”

The court similarly dismissed New Hope’s claim that applying the regulation violated its right of expressive association, rejecting New Hope’s argument that this case is controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), where the court found that the BSA had a 1st Amendment right to dismiss an out gay man from the position of Assistant Scoutmaster, based on the determination by 5 members of the Court that requiring the BSA to allow James Dale to serve would be a form of compelled endorsement of homosexuality.  The Court deemed the BSA an expressive association that had a right to determine its organizational message.  By contrast, found Judge D’Agostino, “New Hope has not alleged facts demonstrating a similar harm that providing adoption services to unmarried or same sex couples would cause to their organization.  New Hope is not being required to hire employees that do not share their same religious values,” she wrote.  “They are not prohibited in any way from continuing to voice their religious ideals.”  And even if the regulation worked “a significant impairment on New Hope’s association rights,” she continued, “the state’s compelling interest in prohibition the discrimination at issue here far exceeds any harm to New Hope’s expressive association.”

The court also found no merit to New Hope’s Equal Protection claim based on a spurious charge of selective enforcement, finding no indication that OCFS was allowing other, non-religious agencies to discriminate while cracking down on New Hope.  As to the “unconstitutional conditions” cause of action, the judge wrote that the court “views New Hope’s unconstitutional conditions claim as a mere repackaging of its various First Amendment claims and, therefore, the Court similarly repackages its resolution of those claims.”

Consequently, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, and granted OCFS’s motion to dismiss the case.  ADF will undoubtedly seek to appeal this ruling to the 2nd Circuit.

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