New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Federal Court Orders State Department to Recognize Birthright Citizenship of Child Born Overseas to Married Gay Male Couple Through Gestational Surrogacy

A U.S. District Judge in Georgia issued a ruling on August 27 that a married male couple’s daughter, conceived through donor insemination from a donated egg with an English woman serving as gestational surrogate, should be deemed a natural-born U.S. citizen and entitled to a passport over the objections of the State Department.  The complication in this case is that the spouse whose sperm was used was not a U.S. citizen at the time, although he since has become one through the marriage to his native-born U.S. citizen husband.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the case of Mize v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 5059253, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156121 (N.D. Ga., Aug. 27, 2020), presents issues similar to those in Kiviti v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 3268221 (D. Md. June 17, 2020), decided a few months earlier by a federal court in Maryland, which also ordered the State Department to recognize the birthright citizenship of the child of a married gay couple.

This is a recurring problem encountered by married gay male couples who use a foreign surrogate to have their child overseas.

Under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, all persons born in the United States are citizens at birth, regardless of the nationality or citizenship status of their parents.  By statute and court decision, the only people born in the U.S. who are not citizens at birth are children born to foreign diplomats stationed in the U.S. or temporary tourist or business visitors.  The citizenship of children born overseas to U.S. citizens is determined by a statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Under the INA, there is a crucial distinction depending whether the child’s U.S. citizen parents are married to each other when the child is born.  One provision concerns the overseas children of married U.S. citizens, and a different provision applies if the children are born “out of wedlock.”  As interpreted by the State Department, if the parents are married, the child is a birthright citizen so long as it is biologically related to one of them.  If the parents are not married, at least one them who is biologically related to the child must be a United States citizen who has resided in the U.S. for at least five years.

In this case, James Mize, a native-born U.S. citizen, and Jonathan Gregg, a British native, met when Gregg moved to the U.S. in 2014 and they subsequently married.  They then decided to have a child together, and a British woman who was a friend of the couple agreed to be the gestational surrogate.  They obtained an anonymously donated egg which was fertilized in vitro with Jonathan’s sperm, implanted in their friend, who bore the child in England in 2018.  The local authorities issued a birth certificate recognizing the two men as the parents of the child, identified in court papers as SM-G.  The men had moved to England before the child was conceived.  After she was born, they applied for a U.S. passport and citizenship declaration, but the State Department refused to provide it.  The Department treated the child as if she was born out of wedlock, since her biological parents were not married to each other, and found that her biological father, Gregg, had not resided in the United States as a citizen long enough to confer birthright citizenship on her.  Mize is not her biological parent, so the Department was unwilling to recognize birthright citizenship based on Mize’s natural-born citizenship status.

These rules have proved to be a recurring issue for gay male couples who go out of the country to have children through surrogacy, as it has generated several lawsuits, and the State Department, while losing individual cases, has not modified its interpretation of the statute. Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration has filed appeals of prior cases and there is no definite appellate interpretation yet.

Mize and Gregg sued the State Department, claiming that the denial of the passport and citizenship declaration for their daughter violated their 5th Amendment constitutional rights, violated the INA, and also violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Meanwhile, however, because of the citizenship status eventually acquired by Gregg through his marriage to Mize, their daughter ultimately acquired naturalized citizenship as the minor child of a naturalized citizen while this case was pending, and is living with the couple in Georgia.  In addition to refusing to change its interpretation of the INA and moving for summary judgment as to that, the State Department also suggested that the case should be dismissed as moot, since the child now has a U.S. passport as a “naturalized” citizen by derivation from her biological father.

U.S. District Judge Michael Brown rejected the mootness argument before turning to the merits of the case in his August 27 opinion.  He said that the dignitary harm suffered by the men in their marriage being deemed irrelevant for the purpose of their daughter’s citizenship status at birth kept this case from being moot.

On the merits, Judge Brown pointed out that as a matter of constitutional law, under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and Pavan v. Smith in 2017, same-sex marriages are supposed to be treated the same as opposite sex marriages for all purposes of law.  They are entitled to the same rights and have the same responsibilities. However, if the INA can be interpreted to treat their daughter as a child “of the marriage,” then the provision concerning the children of married U.S. citizens would apply and there would be no requirement that the child be biologically related to both parents to be a birthright citizen, and the court would not have to address the constitutional issues.

Judge Brown found that the INA does not define what a child “of the marriage” is, leaving an ambiguity because the statutory language can be interpreted in more than one way.  If the language is interpreted as the State Department insists, he found that would raise constitutional issues under the 5th Amendment.   Federal courts apply a doctrine of “constitutional avoidance.”  They avoid having to decide questions about the constitutionality of a statute or its interpretation by the government if there is a reasonable way to interpret the statutory language to make the constitutional issues go away.

In this case, Judge Brown, in line with several prior district court decisions, concluded that such an interpretation is possible.  The Mize-Gregg marriage is valid and must be recognized by the State Department, and the process by which Mize and Gregg decided to have a child through gestational surrogacy and carried out their plan supports the argument that SM-G is a child “of” their marriage in a practical sense.  Thus, the court concluded, she was not born “out of wedlock,” and the requirement that she be biologically related to as U.S. parent with sufficient duration of residency under the “out of wedlock” provision would not apply.

Judge Brown granted summary judgment to Mize and Gregg as a matter of statutory interpretation, rendering it unnecessary to decide the constitutional questions, and he ordered the State Department to issue the documents for which the men had applied.  He dismissed the Administrative Procedure Act claim as moot.

The State Department could decide to appeal this ruling, which would be consistent with the Trump Administration’s general tendency to fall in line with efforts by Christian conservatives to chip away at the legal status of same-sex marriages.  Unsurprisingly, the Department filed an appeal of the Kiviti decision in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 14, but in the normal course of things that appeal will probably not be argued for several months and a decision would be unlikely until sometime next year at the earliest.  Meanwhile, the Trump Administration could consistently file an appeal in this case to “protect” its position about how to interpret the statute.

If Joe Biden is elected president, it is possible that the State Department would decide to protect the rights of same-sex couples and their children by revising the Foreign Affairs Manual to adopt an interpretation consistent with  the court’s rulings for the guidance of U.S. consulates and embassies that receive these sorts of applications when children are born to U.S. citizens overseas.

Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal are representing Mize and Gregg, as they are also representing the plaintiffs in the Kiviti case.

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Gavin Grimm Victorious: U.S. Appeals Court Reject’s School Board’s Anti-Trans Restroom Policy

Capping litigation that began in 2015, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on August 26 that the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board violated the statutory and constitutional rights of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, when it denied him the use of boys’ restrooms at Gloucester County High School.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 27234, 2020 Westlaw 5034430.

This may sound like old news, especially since other federal appellate courts, most notably the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, have either ruled in favor of the rights of transgender students or rejected arguments against such equal access policies by protesting parents and cisgender students. But Grimm’s victory is particularly delicious because the Trump Administration intervened at a key point in the litigation to switch sides in the case after the Obama Administration had supported Grimm’s original lawsuit.

Grimm, identified as female at birth, claimed his male gender identity by the end of his freshman year, taking on a male name and dressing and grooming as male. Before his sophomore year, he and his mother spoke to the high school principal and secured agreement that he could use boys’ bathrooms, which he did for several weeks without incident.  But as word spread that a transgender boy was using the facilities, parents became alarmed and deluged the school board with protests, leading to two stormy public meetings and a vote that transgender students in the district (of which Grimm was then the only known one) were restricted to using a single-occupant restroom in the nurse’s office or restrooms consistent with their “biological sex,” which the district defined as the sex identified at birth.

After Grimm filed his lawsuit represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeking a court order to allow him to resume using the boys’ restrooms in his school, the Obama Administration weighed in with a letter to the court siding with Grimm’s argument that the school board’s policy violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination against students.  Despite this positive letter, the district judge granted the school board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Grimm appealed the dismissal.  A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit then ruled that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and not dismissed that claim.  The school board sought review from the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the petition and scheduled the case for argument in March 2017.  The timing of this argument guaranteed that Grimm would never get to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school before graduating that spring.

After the Trump Administration took office in January 2017, the Justice and Education Departments announced that they were “withdrawing” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX.  Without taking a formal position on the interpretive question, they criticized the Obama Administration as inadequately reasoned.  But subsequently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his disagreement with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and more generally the prior administration’s position that transgender people are protected by all federal laws banning sex discrimination.  In an October 2017 memorandum to all executive agencies, Sessions announced that laws banning sex discrimination apply only narrowly to a claim that an individual suffered discrimination because he was a biological male or she was a biological female, defined by how they were identified at birth.

Since the 4th Circuit had premised its reversal of the dismissal of Grimm’s Title IX claim on its conclusion that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation, the basis for that ruling was effectively gone.  The Solicitor General formally notified the Supreme Court, which cancelled the scheduled hearing, vacated the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sent the case back to the District Court without any ruling by the Supreme Court.  In the interim, the district court had responded to the 4th Circuit’s decision by issuing an injunction requiring the school board to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but that was stayed while the appeal was pending in the Supreme Court and within months of the Supreme Court’s action of March 2017, Grimm had graduated from high school.

The Gloucester County School Board than urged the district court to dismiss the case as moot, since Grimm was no longer a student.  Grimm insisted that the case should continue, because he should be entitled to seek damages for the discrimination he suffered and he wanted to be able to use the male facilities if he returned to the school as an alumnus to attend events there.  The mootness battle raged for some time, the complaint was amended to reflect the new reality that Grimm was no longer a student, and a new issue emerged when Grimm requested that the school issue him an appropriate transcript in his male name identifying him as male, since he was stuck in the odd situation of being a boy with a high school transcript identifying him as a girl.  By this time, he had gotten a court order approving his name change and a new birth certificate, but the school persisted in denying him a new transcript, raising frivolous arguments about the validity of the new birth certificate.

Thus repurposed, the case went forward.  Ultimately the district court ruled in Grimm’s favor on both his statutory and constitutional claims, but the school board was not willing to settle the case, appealing again to the 4th Circuit.  The August 26, 2020, ruling is the result.

The ACLU publicized this case heavily from the beginning, winning national media attention and an army of amicus parties filing briefs in support of Grimm’s claim along the away.  On May 26, 2020, the case was argued in the 4th Circuit before a panel of two Obama appointees, Judge Henry Floyd and Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., and an elderly George H.W. Bush appointee, Judge Paul Niemeyer (who had dissented from the original 4th Circuit ruling in this case).  In light of the rulings by other courts of appeals on transgender student cases and the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, on June 25, 2020, holding that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the result in this new ruling was foreordained.

Judge Floyd’s opinion for the panel, and Judge Wynn’s concurring opinion, both go deeply into the factual and legal issues in the case, constituting a sweeping endorsement of the right of transgender students to equal treatment in schools that receive federal funding, a prerequisite for coverage under Title IX.  Furthermore, public schools are bound by the Equal Protection Clause, and the court’s ruling on the constitutional claim was just as sweeping.

The court first rejected the school board’s argument that the case was moot, with Grimm having graduated and now being enrolled in college.  Since damages are available for a violation of Title IX, it was irrelevant that Grimm was no longer a student.  He had been barred from using the boys’ restrooms for most of his sophomore and all of his junior and senior years.  Even though the district court granted him only nominal damages, his claim for damages made this a live controversy, as did the school’s continuing refusal to issue him a proper transcript, which the court held was also illegal.

Turning to the merits, Judge Floyd first tackled the Equal Protection claim.  The court rejected the School Board’s argument that there was no discrimination against Grimm because he was not “similarly situated” to cisgender boys.  Judges Floyd and Wynn firmly asserted that Grimm is a boy entitled to be treated as a boy, regardless of his sex as identified at birth.  This judicial endorsement of the reality of gender identity is strongly set forth in both opinions.

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent rests on a Title IX regulation, which Grimm did not challenge, providing that schools could maintain separate single-sex facilities for male and female students, and the judge’s rejection that Grimm is male for purposes of this regulation.  Niemeyer insisted that Title IX only prohibits discrimination because of “biological sex” (a term with the statute does not use).  As far as he was concerned, the school did all that the statute required it to do when it authorized Grimm to use the nurse’s restroom or the girls’ restrooms.  But the majority of the panel accepted Grimm’s argument that the school’s policy subjected him to discriminatory stigma, as well as imposing physical disadvantages.  As a boy, he would not be welcome in the girls’ restroom, and the nurse’s restroom was too far from the classrooms for a break between classes.  As a result, he generally avoided using the restroom at school, leaving to awkward situations and urinary tract infections.

As the case unfolded, the school constructed additional single-user restrooms open to all students regardless of sex and made some modifications to the existing restrooms to increase the privacy of users, but the single-user restrooms were not conveniently located and cisgender students did not use them, reinforcing the stigma Grimm experienced.  Stigma due to discrimination has long been recognized by the federal courts as the basis for a constitutional equal protection claim.

The school’s actions undermined Judge Niemeyer’s argument that the school board policy was justified by the need to protect the privacy of cisgender students, an argument that has been specifically rejected by the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases when they rejected cases brought by parents and cisgender students challenging school policies that allowed transgender students to use appropriate restrooms.  Judge Niemeyer colorfully wrote, “we want to be alone — to have our privacy — when we ‘shit, shower, shave, shampoo, and shine.’”  (Do high school buys shave in the boys’ room as a general practice?)  But the panel smajority was not persuaded that it was necessary to exclude Grimm from the boys’ restrooms to achieve this goal.  After all, the only way Grimm as a transgender boy could relieve himself was by using an enclosed stall, lacking the physical equipment to use a urinal, so he would not be disrobing in front of the other students.  (Let’s be real here.)

Judge Floyd’s opinion did not rely on the Bostock ruling for its constitutional analysis, instead noting that many circuit courts of appeals have accepted the argument that government policies discriminating because of gender identity are subject to heightened scrutiny, and are thus presumptively unconstitutional unless they substantially advance an important state interest.  The majority, contrary to judge Floyd, did not think that excluding Grimm advanced an important state interest, especially after the School Board had altered the restrooms to afford more privacy, an obvious solution to any privacy issue.

Turning to the statutory claim, Judge Floyd pointed out that judicial interpretation of Title IX has always been informed by the Supreme Court’s Title VII rulings on sex discrimination, so the Bostock decision carried heavy precedential weight and the school board’s arguments on the constitutional claim were no more successful on this claim.  The School Board lacked a sufficient justification under Title IX to impose unequal access to school facilities on Grimm.

At this point, the Gloucester County School Board can read the writing on the wall and concede defeat, or it can petition the 4th Circuit for en banc review (review by the full 15-judge bench of the circuit court), or it can seek Supreme Court review a second time.  As to the en banc situation, the 4th Circuit is one of the few remaining federal circuit courts with a majority of Democratic appointees, as several of Bill Clinton’s appointees are still serving as active judges and all six of Obama’s appointees are still serving, leaving a majority of Democratic appointees on the full bench, so seeking en banc review, which requires that a majority of the active judges vote to review the case, would be a long shot.

On the other hand, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s decision for the Supreme Court in Bostock refrained from deciding – since it wasn’t an issue in that case – whether excluding transgender people from restroom facilities violates sex discrimination laws, and this case would provide a vehicle for addressing that issue.  It takes only four votes on the Supreme Court to grant review of a lower court case, so there may be another chapter in the saga of Grimm’s legal battle. It is also possible that the St. Johns County School District in Florida, which lost in the 11th Circuit in a virtually identical ruling, might also seek Supreme Court review, so one way or another, this issue may yet get on to the Court’s Docket this term or next.

ACLU attorney Joshua Block has been representing Grimm throughout the struggle, but the case was argued in May by cooperating attorney David Patrick Corrigan, a litigation specialist at the Richmond firm of Harman Clayton Corrigan & Wellman.  A local Richmond firm represented the School Board, confronting Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring supporting Grimm with an amicus brief.  The overwhelming majority of amicus briefs filed, many by state attorneys general, sided with Grimm.

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Federal Court Awards Significant Damages to Individuals Denied Plastic Surgery Because of HIV Status 

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres (S.D.N.Y.) ruled on August 5 in United States v. Asare, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139864, that three men who were denied plastic surgery by Dr. Emmanuel O. Asare because he believed them to be HIV-positive are entitled to the maximum statutory damages available in such a case under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law.  The court ordered that Dr. Asare to pay each of the men $125,000 and to pay a fine to the government of $15,000.  The total awarded is $390,000 in damages and penalties.  The court also ordered Dr. Asare to refrain from testing patients for HIV as a prerequisite for denying them services if they test positive.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), forbidding unjustified disability discrimination by public accommodations (including medical practices), filed this lawsuit in 2015, consolidating in one case complaints by three New York men, Mark Milano, J.G., and S.V.  Each of the men had gone to Dr. Asare seeking a procedure to remove unwanted body fat from their chests, a common procedure in which the doctor specialized.  Each of the men was ultimately rejected for the procedure by the doctor when he came to believe (incorrectly in the case of one of them) that they were HIV-positive.

According to the court’s findings after discovery and trial, Dr. Asare’s practice was to have blood drawn for testing some days in advance of the scheduled procedure, to determine whether the patient had any condition that would cause him to deny them treatment.  J.G. and S.V. both testified that they were not asked to consent to HIV testing and were not aware that their blood would be tested for this purpose.  Dr. Asare’s practice was to categorically refuse to perform plastic surgery on HIV-positive people in his clinic.

J.G. had been scheduled for the procedure, but received a call from Dr. Asare’s office asking him to come in to speak with the doctor, who informed him that he had tested positive for HIV and could not receive the procedure.  J.G. had known for years that he was HIV-positive but had not disclosed this on the doctor’s intake questionnaire because he had long kept this information secret from all but a handful of individuals.  He was on anti-retroviral therapy, with an undetectable viral load, and was otherwise healthy.  When he submitted to a blood draw for testing, he was not told that his blood would be tested for HIV.

S.V., a single father of two children who was planning to get married, decided to get the surgical procedure because he was dissatisfied by the appearance of his body.  Due to some sort of mix-up, he had actually reported for the procedure, was sedated and ready for it to be performed, when Dr. Asare informed him that the blood draw a few days earlier showed that he was HIV-positive and the procedure was off.   Asare called a car service for S.V. and sent him home in a sedated state!  When he arrived home, S.V., who was puzzled and shocked by the news, was so woozy that he had to crawl up the stairs to his bedroom and slept for hours.  Not believing that he could possibly be HIV-positive, he went to a hospital a few days later for testing and was informed that he was not HIV-positive.  Judge Torres’ opinion identifies J.G. and Milano as gay men, but does not so specify as to S.V., and does not mention the gender of the person he was planning to marry.

Mark Milano, who was working at the time for an HIV/AIDS organization, also knew that he was HIV-positive, but he did not indicate this on the intake questionnaire because he did not consider the information relevant.  However, in discussing the procedure with Dr. Asare, he asked out of curiosity whether the anti-viral medication he was taking could be responsible for the fatty deposits he wanted to have removed from his chest.  Asare replied that his office was not set up to provide surgery for HIV-positive people and refused to schedule the procedure.  Thus, with Milano things did not get to the stage of blood testing in advance of the procedure.

Under the ADA, a public accommodation, including a medical practice, may not deny services to somebody because of a disability, either actual or perceived, unless the disability renders the person unqualified for the service.  In this case, Judge Torres heard expert testimony that convinced her that being HIV-positive, which is considered a disability under the ADA, was not a disqualification for the procedure Dr. Asare was supposed to provide to these men.  She concluded that the doctor’s explanation that it would be dangerous to mix the anesthetic he used with the anti-retroviral medication that an HIV-positive person would be taking had no medical basis.

Furthermore, the ADA prohibits medical testing that would unjustifiably screen out qualified individuals from receiving a service.  The medical experts testified that all surgeons are supposed to observe “universal precautions” with patients to avoid exposure to any blood-borne infections, regardless of testing.  The emergence of “universal precautions” as the standard of care was actually sparked by the AIDS epidemic.  Before then, it was an open secret in the medical profession that many health care professionals were infected with hepatitis B, a much more easily transmitted infection through blood exposure than HIV, as a result of casual exposure to the blood of patients in health care facilities where universal precautions against such exposure were not enforced.

Thus, Dr. Asare was found to have violated the ADA (and, since his activities were taking place in New York City, the City’s Human Rights Law) in two respects: denying services to people with a disability, and using medical testing to screen out otherwise qualified people with a disability.

Some of these points had been established at earlier stages of the litigation when the focus was on Mr. Milano’s discrimination claim.  The government’s decision to add claims on behalf of J.G. and S.V. prolonged the case, because the issue of testing, which was not raised in Milano’s case, had to be addressed in connection with J.G. and S.V..  The court needed medical expert testimony so that Judge Torres could determine whether requiring the testing violated the statute, a crucial point in framing her remedial order in the case, and haggling about the qualification of an appropriate expert caused significant delay, which is one of the reasons a lawsuit originally filed in 2015 did not come to a final ruling by the trial court until five years later.

The amount of damages was determined by reference to the range of damages that are customarily awarded in Title III cases.  Here the focus was on the psychological and emotional impact on the three men from being denied Dr. Asare’s services under these circumstances.  Each of them credibly testified about severe emotional distress that they suffered, prompting the judge to award the highest amount of damages that she found to be available under the ranges of damages that have been awarded in ADA cases, adding consideration of the range of remedies available under the New York City law as well.

It is possible that Dr. Asare could get the damages cut down on appeal to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, but Judge Torres devoted a substantial part of her opinion to describing the testimony about how each man was affected by being rejected for the procedure, and particularly the bizarre treatment of S.V., who was not HIV-positive and was actually prepped for surgery and sedated by mistake, then sent home in that sedated state without any supervision or follow-up from Dr. Asare’s office to see whether he was all right.  The court’s description of Dr. Asare’s conduct in this case should draw the attention of regulatory authorities on health care practice.

Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted the case against Dr. Asare, but Mark Milano was allowed by Judge Torres to intervene as a co-plaintiff, and he was represented by Alison Ellis Frick and Matthew D. Brinckerhoff, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP, New York, NY, as well as Armen Hagop Merjian, who has litigated many important HIV-related cases on behalf of Housing Works, Inc., a provider of housing to people living with HIV and an active advocate for their rights.

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Federal Court Blocks Idaho Law Barring Transgender Women from Athletic Competition

David C. Nye, the Chief U.S. District Judge for Idaho, issued an injunction on August 17 to block enforcement of Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which Governor Bradley Little had signed into law on March 30.  Hecox v. Little, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149442.  Passage of this law made Idaho the first state to enact a statutory ban on transgender women and girls competing in women’s interscholastic sports at all levels.

 

The statute was not enacted in response to any particular incident or crisis involving transgender women in Idaho seeking to compete in women’s sports.  Rather, it appears to have been inspired by news reports about incidents in other states, and in particular a lawsuit filed by some cisgender girls in Connecticut who were upset that the interscholastic sports association in that state had adopted a policy of allowing transgender women to compete as women.

 

Judge Nye pointed out that various professional associations governing women’s interscholastic sports have adopted rules that transgender women would be eligible to compete in women’s sports after having undergone at least one year of hormone therapy to suppress their testosterone levels, based on evidence showing that this would not pose unfair competition to cisgender women.

 

Despite the lack of any sort of emergency, the Idaho legislature actually delayed by a few days joining the nationwide trend of moving legislative activity on-line in the face of the coronavirus pandemic in order to enact two anti-transgender bills: this one, which the Republican State Attorney General warned them would present legal issues under the Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and a bill reviving a ban on issuing new birth certificates for transgender individuals, passed in defiance of an injunction issued by the federal court against a similar previous statute.  It was clearly anti-trans month in the Idaho legislature.

 

In addition to excluding transgender women from competing in any organized or team sports activity that was designated for women only, the law empowered anybody to challenge the female sex of a participant, placing the burden on the challenged individual to provide evidence of their female sex according to a definition that in essence considers transgender women to be men.  The law also authorized anybody who claimed to have been harmed by a violation of the statute to sue for damages.

 

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of Lindsay Hecox, transgender girl interested in competing in women’s sports, and a cisgender girl allowed to proceed anonymously as Jane Doe, both challenging the law on constitutional and statutory grounds, and seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the law from going into effect while the lawsuit plays out.  Jane Doe argued that the law subjected her to the possibility of being challenged as to her sex and subjected to invasive procedures.  The state responded with a motion to dismiss the case, and two cisgender women filed a motion to intervene as co-defendants, claiming that they would be harmed by being subjected to unfair competition from transgender women if the law was blocked.  Of course, the Trump Administrative, which is not a party to litigation involving a state law, filed a statement of interest, supporting Idaho’s right to exclude transgender women from competition.

 

Much of Judge Nye’s decision was taken up with the questions of whether the lawsuit was filed prematurely, whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue, and whether to grant the motion by the cisgender women to intervene.  He dealt with those issues at length, ultimately concluding that the plaintiffs did have a personal stake in the outcome of the case and that the law, as written, was subject to a pre-enforcement legal challenge.  The question of intervention was a closer call, but the judge resolved it in favor of allowing intervention.

 

However, he concluded that it was inappropriate to dismiss the case because this was a clear case of discrimination due to transgender status, and the Supreme Court’s June 15 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County clearly shows that such discrimination is discrimination “because of sex,” and thus subject to “heightened scrutiny” from the court in an Equal Protection challenge.   When a law is subject to heightened scrutiny, it does not enjoy the normal presumption of constitutionality. Rather, the state has a burden of justification, to show that the law substantially advances an important state interest.  Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held years ago in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admissions policy to be unconstitutional, a law that discriminates because of sex will only survive judicial review if the state has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for it.

 

In this case, however, such a justification was lacking, as Judge Nye found when he turned to the issue of a preliminary injunction.  Prior to the passage of the law there had been no official state policy restricting transgender women from competing as women, so this injunction was about maintaining the status quo while the lawsuit was under way.  Judge Nye weighed the factors courts are supposed to consider when determining whether to interfere with the legislature’s lawmaking power by blocking enforcement of a new statute, and resolved the issue against the state.

 

The state’s purported justification for the law was to “ensure equality and opportunities” for female athletes, but the court was not persuaded that law would substantially advance that goal.  “Ultimately,” Nye wrote, “the Court must hear testimony from the experts at trial and weigh both their credibility and the extent of the scientific evidence. However, the incredibly small percentage of transgender women athletes in general, coupled with the significant dispute regarding whether such athletes actually have physiological advantages over cisgender women when they have undergone hormone suppression in particular, suggest the Act’s categorical exclusion of transgender women athletes has no relationship to ensuring equality and opportunities for female athletes in Idaho.”

 

Taking note of existing rules in scholastic competition that transgender girls could not compete as women until they had undergone a year of testosterone suppression therapy, he could find little rationale for the law.  “In short, the State has not identified a legitimate interest served by the Act that the preexisting rules in Idaho did not already address, other than an invalid interest of excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports entirely, regardless of their physiological characteristics,” he concluded. “As such, Lindsay is likely to succeed on the merits of her equal protection claim. Again, at this stage, the Court only discusses the ‘likelihood’ of success based on the information currently in the record. Actual success—or failure—on the merits will be determined at a later stage.”

 

However, he continued, “Instead of ensuring ‘long-term benefits that flow from success in athletic endeavors for women and girls,’ it appears that the Act hinders those benefits by subjecting women and girls to unequal treatment, excluding some from participating in sports at all, incentivizing harassment and exclusionary behavior, and authorizing invasive bodily examinations.  In the absence of any evidence that transgender women threatened equality in sports, girls’ athletic opportunities, or girls’ access to scholarships in Idaho during the ten years such policies were in place, neither Defendants nor the Intervenors would be harmed by returning to this status quo.”

 

Thus, the Idaho legislature is 0 for 2 on its decision to prolong the legislative session in the face of the pandemic, as a different federal judge has already reiterated that the injunction against the prior birth certificate law remains in effect as the lawsuit against the new birth certificate law – which was disingenuously worded to distinguish itself from the earlier one – continues.

 

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU.  Judge Nye, who had served as a state court judge for several years, was nominated to the district court by President Obama during his last year in office, 2016, when Mitch McConnell and the Republican majority were refusing to confirm any of Obama’s nominees.  But Nye, a graduate of Brigham Young University’s Law School with a good reputation who earned the ABA’s highest rating, was nominated on the recommendation of Idaho’s two conservative Republican senators, who then asked President Trump to re-nominate him in 2017, and he quickly became Chief Judge when an elderly colleague retired shortly thereafter.  So here is the irony: Just as Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee wrote the opinion protecting transgender people under Title VII, one of his first district court nominees has rejected the position of the Trump Administration’s statement of interest filed in this case.

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Federal Court Blocks Trump Regulation Revoking Health Care Protections for Transgender People

U.S. District Judge Frederic Block ruled on August 17 that a new Trump Administration Rule that rescinded the Obama Administration’s Rule prohibiting gender identity discrimination in health care will not go into effect on August 18, its scheduled date, and he granted a preliminary injunction against the new Rule’s enforcement.  Judge Block sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn. Walker v. Azar, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148141.

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to adopt a rule providing an official interpretation of the non-discrimination requirements contained in Section 1557 of that statute.  Section 1557 incorporates by reference a provision of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids discrimination because of sex in educational institutions that get federal funding.  In the past, HHS and federal courts have looked to decisions interpreting the sex discrimination provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, in interpreting Title IX.

By the time HHS had finished writing its rule in 2016, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several federal appeals courts had interpreted Title VII to ban discrimination because of an individual’s gender identity.  The Obama Administration followed these precedents and included a prohibition on gender identity discrimination in its ACA rule.  Several states and a religious health care institution then joined together to challenge the rule before a federal district judge in Fort Worth, Texas, who was notoriously receptive to issuing nationwide injunctions against Obama Administration policies, and the court was true to that practice, holding that the inclusion of gender identity was contrary to the “original meaning” of the term “because of sex” when it was adopted by Congress in Title IX back in 1972.  The case is Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, 227 F. Supp. 3d 660 (N.D. Tex. 2016).

The new Trump Administration rule that was challenged in the August 17 ruling was intended by the Department of Health and Human Services to codify the decision by district court in Franciscan Alliance.  Franciscan Alliance was issued in December 2016, just weeks before the Trump Administration took office.  Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, the incoming administration would likely have appealed the Fort Worth decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. But the Trump Administration informed the district court that it was not appealing and instead would not enforce the Obama Administration rule and would eventually replace it.

Judge Block emphasized this history as he set out his reasons for finding that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and its volunteer attorneys from Baker & Hostetler LLP, were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Trump Rule was both inconsistent with the ACA, and that HHS was “arbitrary and capricious” in adopting this new Rule and publishing it just days after the Supreme Court had ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination against a person because of their transgender status was “necessarily discrimination because of sex.”

The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in the Bostock case, which concerned the interpretation of Title VII, on October 8, 2019, while HHS was working on its proposed new rule.  The HHS attorneys knew that the Supreme Court would be issuing a decision by the end of its term, most likely in June 2020.  One of the three cases consolidated in Bostock involved a gender identity discrimination claim by Aimee Stephens against Harris Funeral Homes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had sued the employer on Stephens’ behalf.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Stephens for transitioning, and the Supreme Court granted review on the specific question whether discrimination because of transgender status violates Title VII.  HHS concedes in the “preamble” of its new rule that interpretations of Title IX (and thus Section 1157) generally follow interpretations of Title VII.

October 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum to the Executive Branch explaining the Trump Administration’s position that bans on sex discrimination in federal law did not extend to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Thus, although the U.S. Solicitor General normally represents federal agencies such as the EEOC when their decisions are appealed to the Supreme Court, that office actually joined in  arguing on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, leaving it to the ACLU LGBT Rights Project to represent Aimee Stephens before the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration was so confident that the Court would rule against Stephens that it decided to go ahead with its new Rule, effectively revoking the Obama Administration’s Rule, although the “preamble” did acknowledge that a decision by the Supreme Court in the Title VII case could affect the interpretation of Section 1557.  LGBTQ rights advocates waited impatiently for a ruling in the Bostock case as the Court began to wind up its Term in June.  The Trump Administration was no more patient, announcing its new Rule a few days before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Bostock, apparently assuming that the Court would rule against Stephens.  Without publicly reacting to the Supreme Court’s opinion, or even revising its new Rule to acknowledge that the Trump Administration’s interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” had been rejected by the Supreme Court (in an opinion by Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch), HHS went ahead and published the new Rule five days later.

Over the following weeks, challenges to the new Rule were filed in four different federal courts.  HRC filed suit on behalf of two transgender women who had encountered discrimination from health care institutions covered by the ACA.  Judge Block found that their experiences gave them formal standing to challenge the new Rule. Judge Block reached his decision the day before the new Rule was to go into effect.

He found that the well established practice of following Title VII interpretations in sex discrimination cases was likely to be followed under the ACA, just as it was under Title IX, and thus the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claim that the new Rule was inconsistent with  the statute.  He noted that just two weeks earlier, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had followed the Bostock decision in finding that a Florida school district violated Title IX by denying appropriate restroom access to a transgender student.

Furthermore, the failure of the new rule, published after the Bostock decision, to mention that ruling or to offer any reasoned explanation why it should not be followed, was likely to be found to be “arbitrary and capricious,” so the adoption of the new Rule probably violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the federal law that details how federal agencies are to proceed in adopting new rules and regulations or rescinding old ones.

Because of the December 2016 ruling in Franciscan Alliance and the subsequent non-enforcement policy by the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration’s Rule has not been enforced by HHS since December 2016.  But the ACA allows individuals who suffer discrimination to sue on  their own behalf to enforce the statute, and there have been numerous lawsuits under Section 1557 successfully challenging exclusion of transgender health care from coverage under health insurance policies that are subject to the ACA.

Judge Block’s stay of the effective date and injunction against enforcing the new Rule gives the green light to HHS to resume enforcing Section 1557 in gender identity discrimination cases consistent with the Bostock ruling.  While there are probably plenty of career agency officials in the HHS Office of Civil Rights who would like to do so, any significant effort in that direction seems unlikely so long as Trump remains in office.  For now, the main impact of Judge Block’s order will be to clear a potential obstacle for transgender litigants under Section 1557, as the opinion persuasively explains how Justice Gorsuch’s reasoning in Bostock compels protecting transgender health care patients under the ACA.

The  practical effect of Judge Block’s ruling now is to place the burden on HHS if it wants to  continue defending its new Rule.  HHS must provide a reasoned explanation to the Court about why the Bostock interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” should not be followed under Section 1557.  The simplest way for HHS to proceed consistent with the court’s order would be to strike those portions of the preamble discussing this subject, and to substitute a simple statement that Section 1557’s ban on discrimination because of sex includes claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation  or gender identity consistent with  the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of similar statutory language in the Bostock case.

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Federal Court Bars Enforcement of Louisville Public Accommodations Ordinance Against A Wedding Photographer Who Opposes Marriage Equality

Justin Walker, recently confirmed by the Senate to be a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, completed some unfinished business on his docket as a U.S. District Judge in Louisville, Kentucky, by issuing an order on August 14 barring the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission from enforcing the sexual orientation provision of the city’s public accommodation ordinance against a wedding photographer who does not want to photograph same-sex weddings and wants to be able to announce and explain her opposition on her website.  Chelsey Nelson Photography LLC v. Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Gov’t, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146246 (W.D. Ky, Aug. 14, 2020).

In 1999, Louisville became the first municipality in Kentucky to ban anti-gay discrimination.  Among other things, the ordinance prohibits businesses from denying goods or services because of the sexual orientation of a patron, or to communicate to the public that it will refuse such services or treat people as unwelcome because of their sexual orientation.  The Commission concedes in this case that a photographer’s refusal to photograph same-sex weddings would violate the ordinance, and has not “disavowed” any intention to prosecute such an action.

Chelsey Nelson is a photographer whose business includes weddings.  Although she has not been asked to photograph any same-sex weddings, she claims that her religious beliefs would compel her to refuse such business, and she would like to avoid such confrontations by being able to advertise on her website that she will not provide such service.  Represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-gay litigation group, she filed a lawsuit seeking a court order that she is not required to comply with the ordinance and can publish her views without fear of liability.  She claims that the existence of the ordinance has chilled her ability to exercise her constitutional freedom of speech and free exercise of religion rights under the First Amendment by deterring her from using her website to communicate this message.

Judge Walker is a family friend and protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell, who recommended his appointment to President Trump and has shepherded his nomination through two rounds of Senate confirmation votes.  Walker is a leader of the conservative Federalist Society branch in Louisville, where he worked as a lawyer and law professor before taking the bench.  Thus, his decision to deny the city’s motion to dismiss the case in large part, as well as his decision to grant in part Nelson’s motion for preliminary relief pending an ultimate trial of the merits (presumably before a different district judge as Walker leaves for Washington), is not surprising.

What may be surprising, however, is some of the gay-friendly language that permeates his decision.  Assuming the sincerity of what he has written, the youthful Walker (born 1982) is part of a generation of young conservatives who have generally accepted gay rights.  He begins his decision praising the activists who campaigned for many years to get the Louisville ordinance passed, and comments that our society is “better” for prohibiting anti-gay discrimination.

Finding that the plaintiff has a good chance of prevailing on the merits of her claim is a prerequisite for ordering preliminary injunctive relief against enforcement of a law that, on its face, is not unconstitutional.  Walker premises his conclusion that Nelson meets this test by reference to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, in which the Court held that the organizers of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade were not required to allow a gay Irish-American group to march under their own banner if the parade organizers did not want to include a gay rights message in their parade.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had ruled by 4-3 that Massachusetts’ public accommodations law, which prohibited sexual orientation discrimination, required the parade organizers to let the gay group march.

In reversing, the Supreme Court found that the parade was an expressive activity protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provision.  The Court held that forcing the organizers to include the gay group would be unconstitutional compelled speech, imposing the gay group’s message on the parade organizer’s expressive activity.

In this case, Judge Walker embraced the analogy to requiring a photographer to take pictures she did not want to take as compelled speech, and that the provision making it unlawful for her to publicize her refusal to photograph same-sex weddings was a content-based restriction on her speech.  Because her speech was motivated by her religious beliefs, the constitutional problem was compounded, in Judge Walker’s view.  And he noted that the Supreme Court has found that government-compelled speech and punishment of religious expression impose irreparable injury, another test for preliminary relief.

Court decisions on this issue are divided.  In 2013, New Mexico’s Supreme Court found that a wedding photographer violated the state’s public accommodation law by refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, and the Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition to review that case.

But more recently the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a videographer who did not want to film same-sex weddings, and the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a custom stationer did not have to create invitations for a same-sex wedding, both relying on First Amendment free speech rights.  What the more recent cases have in common is that they are part of a broader litigation strategy by Alliance Defending Freedom and other conservative litigation groups, which having lost the battle against marriage equality, seek to establish broad constitutional exemptions for religious opponents of marriage equality from having to comply with anti-discrimination laws.  These are “affirmative litigation” cases brought to challenge the application of the law.  They do not involve actual denials of service to particular individuals, unlike the famous Masterpiece Cakeshop case, or similar cases in other jurisdictions where same-sex couples have filed discrimination claims after being denied goods or services.

The municipal defendants in this case could seek to appeal the grant of injunctive relief to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (in Cincinnati), or could decided to await a final ruling on the merits before instituting an appeal.  At this point, local media coverage of the case has undoubtedly solved Chelsey Nelson’s problem of communicating her stance to the public, so it seems unlikely that any same-sex couples planning their weddings in Louisville are going to approach her for service.  The injunction specifically protects her from being investigated by the Louisville Commission, but does not prevent the Commission from enforcing the ordinance against any other business that is actually violating the anti-discrimination ban, so there is no pressing urgency for an appeal.

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2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Revives Religious Adoption Agency’s Challenge to New York Anti-Discrimination Rule

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York, has revived a Syracuse religious adoption agency’s constitutional challenge to the New York Office of Children and Family Service (OCFS) regulation prohibiting discrimination because of marital status or sexual orientation by adoption agencies. New Hope insists, based on its religious principles, that it cannot provide adoption services to unmarried people or same-sex couples.  OCFS threatened to terminate New Hope’s status as an approved agency if it does not comply.  New Hope Family Services, Inc. v. Poole, 2020 WL 4118201, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 22630 (2nd Cir., July 21, 2020).

New Hope Family Services has been an approved adoption service provider for more than fifty years and estimates that it has placed more than 1,000 children for adoption.  Although it is not affiliated with any church or formal religious movement, it identifies as a Christian agency, requires its employees to subscribe to articles of faith, and will not, consistent with its belief that children are best served in a “Biblical” family constructed of a husband, wife and child, screen potential adoptive parents who do not conform with this model.  New Hope alleges that if single people or same-sex couples seek its services, it would refer them to another agency that is willing to provide the services.  Thus, it claims, nobody is ultimately denied the ability to adopt a child based on their marital status or sexual orientation, and it has not received inquiries from same-sex couples seeking its services.

Under New York law, only agencies “authorized” by the state may provide adoption services, which include evaluating potential adoptive parents, matching them with children needing placements, supervising placements, and preparing reports to the court that will ultimately decide whether to approve an adoption.  State law and regulations set out detailed criteria concerning who may adopt a child and the factors that an approved agency, such as New Hope, are supposed to consider in determining whether it would be in the best interest of a child to be adopted by a particular person or couple.

Although adoption was traditionally limited to married couples, over the years the legislature amended the law to widen the scope of individuals who are permitted to adopt. In 2010, the adoption law was amended to state that an “adult unmarried person, an adult married couple together, or any two unmarried adult intimate partners together may adopt another person.”  The amendment was intended to reflect court decisions that had allowed the same-sex partners of parents to adopt their children, some going the next step by allowing same-sex couples to adopt.  As of 2010, same-sex couples could not legally marry in New York, but the courts had begun to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, including Canada and several states. When Governor David Paterson signed the bill into law, he stated that the law would not require any agency to change its current practices, since it was “permissive,” not mandatory.

The adoption statute authorizes OCFS to adopt regulations to implement the law.  In 2011, after the new statutory provision went into effect, OCFS adopted a regulation providing that an applicant to adopt children could not be rejected “solely on the basis of homosexuality.” OCFS sent an informational letter to the adoption agencies stating that the purpose of the regulation “is to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the adoption study assessment process,” and that “OCFS 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.”

Two years later, OCFS issued a new regulation which requires authorized adoption agencies to “prohibit discrimination and harassment 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, and to take reasonable steps to prevent such discrimination or harassment by staff and volunteers, promptly investigate incidents of discrimination and harassment, and take reasonable and appropriate corrective or disciplinary action when such incidents occur.”

In 2018, OCFS undertook an audit of every adoption agency’s policies and practices.  New Hope passed the on-site audit with ease, but when their written policies were reviewed, OCFS took note of the policy of declining services to single people and same-sex couples, and advised OCFS that it needed to change its policy to comply with the non-discrimination policy.  New Hope dug in its heels, and eventually OCFS warned New Hope that it would have to close its operation if it would not comply with the non-discrimination policy.  Significantly, this did not occur as a result of anybody having been turned away or filed a complaint.

New Hope filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, claiming a violation of its constitutional rights, but the district court dismissed the lawsuit and denied New Hope’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from ending their authorized status while the case was pending.  The judge, Mae D’Agostino, found that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, New Hope was not entitled to claim an exemption from compliance with the law based on its religious beliefs.  Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court in that case said that there is no free exercise of religion exemption from complying with state laws of “general application” that are “neutral” regarding religion.

New Hope appealed to the 2nd Circuit, which reversed the district court on July 21.  The three-judge panel found, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Reena Raggi, that the complaint filed for New Hope by Alliance Defending Freedom contained sufficient factual allegations to at least raise an issue of whether New Hope had been targeted due to hostility by OCFS to its religious beliefs.  The court’s opinion notes that the adoption statute itself does not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, but rather broadens the previous categories of individuals who are legally authorized to adopt children, leaving some question whether OCFS could adopt a non-discrimination requirement through a regulation.  Furthermore, the court noted Governor Paterson’s statement when the law was amended to allow unmarried couples to adopt that it was not intended to require any agencies to change their policies, because the statute was merely “permissive.”  The court also noted in quotations from the correspondence between OCFS and New Hope various statements that could be construed as hostile to or disapproving of New Hope’s religious beliefs.

In light of these and other factors, the court concluded that it was “premature” for the district court to dismiss the case outright.  In deciding a motion to dismiss, the trial court is supposed to treat as hypothetically true all the facts alleged by the plaintiff and to decide whether those facts, if proven, might provide the basis for a valid legal claim.  And, since the court found dismissal to be premature, it directed the trial court to reinstate the lawsuit on the active docket and to analyze whether New Hope is entitled to a preliminary injunction to allow it to carry on its operations while the case is being litigated.

The court was careful to make clear that was not deciding the merits of the case.  The opinion provides a detailed and searching discussion of the concepts of “neutral state laws” (meaning “neutral” regarding religion) and laws that are “generally applicable.”  The court noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that the rule of Employment Division v. Smith does not necessarily apply to situations where a law that looks neutral and generally applicable on its face is shown to have been motivated by government animus towards a particular group or, in the case of religion, animus towards particular religious practices.  The court also took note of the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, 138 S. Ct. 1719, in which it reversed a state court ruling that Masterpiece violated a public accommodations law by refusing to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  The reversal was based on the Court’s conclusion that the state’s civil rights agency had displayed hostility to the baker’s religious views in the administrative hearing process.

Government discrimination against religious organizations was also targeted by the Supreme Court this Term when it held that the state of Montana’s scholarship program for students attending private schools could not exclude religious schools from participating, since this would be “discrimination” against religion.

The court also rejected the trial court’s analysis of New Hope’s argument that requiring it to evaluate and endorse same-sex couples as adoptive parents was a form of compelled speech.  Judge D’Agostino found that this would be “government speech,” because by authorizing New Hope to evaluate applicants the government was delegating to New Hope a governmental function.  Judge Raggi’s opinion questioned this conclusion, pointing out that New Hope was not a government contractor and was not paid by the government to undertake this activity.  Rather, it is an independent agency supported by fees for its services and charitable contributions.  New Hope has always avoided taking government money because it wanted to preserve its freedom to operate consistently with its religious beliefs.

The court also took note of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case similar in many respects to this case.  The 3rd Circuit held that the City did not violate Catholic Social Services’ constitutional rights when it dropped that agency from participating in the City’s foster care system because of its refusal to deal with same-sex couples.  That case also relied on Employment Division v. Smith.  Judge Raggi observed that at least four justices of the Supreme Court have expressed the view in various dissenting or concurring opinions that the Court should “revisit” the holding of Smith, which was a controversial case when it was decided and which provoked Congress into passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was then imitated by many states (although not New York).  If the Supreme Court reverses the Fulton decision or modifies Employment Division v. Smith, the rules governing the New Hope case will be changed.  Judge Raggi also pointed out key distinctions between the two cases.  In Fulton, the Catholic agency was a city contractor and relied heavily on compensation from the city to perform its services, while New Hope, as noted above, is an independent operator that is “authorized” by the state to perform services but is not a contractor or funding recipient.

The case now goes back to District Judge D’Agostino to consider New Hope’s request for a preliminary injunction and to conduct discovery which may culminate in a summary judgment or a trial on the merits if the parties don’t settle the case first through some compromise.  In light the pace at which such proceedings take place, it is likely that the Supreme Court will have ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia before Judge D’Agostino has to render a final decision on the merits in New Hope’s case.

Judge Raggi was appointed to the Court of Appeals by President George W. Bush.  She previously served on the District Court, having been appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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Supreme Court Broadens “Ministerial Exception” to Anti-Discrimination Laws, Leaving LGBTQ Employees or Religious Schools Without Protection

On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination.  On July 8, 2020, the Court took away that protection from most LGBTQ people who are employed as teachers by religious schools.  In a ruling expanding a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws that it had recognized under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Right eight years previously, the Court held that employees of religious schools whose job entails teaching religion enjoy no protection against discrimination because  of their race or color, religion, national origin, sex, age, or disability.  The Court’s vote in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 2020 WL 3808420, was 7-2.

The prior decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U. S. 171 (2012), involved a teacher at a Lutheran church school, whom the Court found to be, in effect, a “minister” of the Church, since she had been formally “called” to the ministry by the congregation after a period of extended theological study, and who had even claimed the tax benefits of being clergy.  Although the teacher in question did not teach religion as her primary assignment, the Court found it easy to conclude that it would violate Hosanna-Tabor’s right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment for the government to intervene in any way in its decision not to continue this teacher’s employment, even if – as the teacher alleged – she was being discriminated against because of a disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The July 8 decision involved two teachers at Catholic elementary schools in the Los Angeles Diocese.  Neither of them was formally a “minister,” neither of them had extended religious education.  As grade school teachers, they each taught the full range of subjects, including a weekly unit on Catholic doctrine at appropriate grade level for their students, but the overwhelming majority of their time was spent teaching arithmetic, science, history, reading, and so forth – the normal range of what a grade school teacher covers, but with an overlay of Catholicism.  They also were supposed to pray with their students every day, and to attend Mass with them weekly.

One of the teachers claimed that she was dismissed because the school want to replace her with a younger person, suing under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  The other claimed she was forced out because of a disability, in violation of the ADA.  In both cases, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, reversing trial judges, found that these teachers could sue their schools for discrimination because they were not ministers.

The 9th Circuit looked to the Hosanna-Tabor ruling and found that unlike the teacher in that case, these teachers did not have extensive religious education, were not “called” to ministry or titled as ministers by their schools, and were essentially lay teachers whose time teaching religion was a small part of their duties.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Supreme Court, said that the 9th Circuit had misinterpreted the Hosanna-Tabor case.  He rejected the idea that there was a checklist that could be mechanically applied to the question whether somebody is a “ministerial employee,” instead focusing on the religious mission of the Catholic School and the role the teacher plays in that mission.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools,” wrote Alito, “and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch) argued that the Court needn’t even probe into the details of the teachers’ employment, but instead should defer to a religious school’s determination whether their employees are excluded from coverage of anti-discrimination laws because of the ministerial exception.  However, the Court was not willing to go that far, and Justice Alito’s opinion made clear that how to classify an employee of a religious institution is a fact-specific determination that does require looking at the job duties of the employee.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rejected Alito’s contention that the Court’s ruling was a faithful application of the Hosanna-Tabor precedent.  Although the Court had not explicitly adopted Justice Thomas’s “deference” approach, she charged that it had actually adopted Thomas’s approach when it classified these teachers as covered by the ministerial exception.  She wrote that “because the Court’s new standard prizes a functional importance that it appears to deem churches in the best position to explain, one cannot help but conclude that the Court has just traded legal analysis for a rubber stamp.”

To the dissenters, there was a world of difference between the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor and the teachers in this case, and they could see no good reason why church schools should be free to discriminate on the full list of grounds prohibited by anti-discrimination laws when the schools had no “theological” reason for discharging the teachers.

Federal anti-discrimination laws specifically allow religious schools to discriminate based on religion, but not based on such grounds as race or color, sex, national origin, age or disability, except for their “ministers,” as to whom traditionally the churches would have total freedom to decide whom to employ.  The Supreme Court long recognized churches’ freedom from government interference in employing “ministers.”  Hosanna-Tabor extended the concept from clergy to some religious teachers, but Sotomayor argued that this new decision takes that concept too far away from traditional religious leadership roles, taking protection against discrimination away from thousands of teachers.

The Court’s ruling may have an immediate adverse effect in lawsuits pending around the country by teachers who have been systematically fired by religious schools – almost entirely Catholic schools – after marrying their same-sex partners in the wake of the Obergefell decision five years ago.  By rejecting Justice Thomas’s “deference” approach, the Court leaves open the possibility that some of these discharged teachers might be able to prove that the “ministerial exception” does not apply to them, but, as Justice Sotomayor suggests, in most cases courts will have to dismiss their discrimination claims if their job had a religious component similar to the elementary school teachers, even if that was only a minor part of their role.

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Supreme Court Holds that Federal Law Bans Anti-LGBT Employment Discrimination in Historic 6-3 Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts (a George Bush appointee), and the four Justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Barack Obama).
Samuel Alito, appointed to the Court by George Bush, wrote an outraged dissenting opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush. Trump-appointee Brett Kavanaugh penned a more temperate dissent, concluding with a surprising salute to the movement’s achievement of this milestone.
Justice Gorsuch’s emergence as the writer of this opinion caught many by surprise, since he is an acolyte of Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he replaced on the Court. Despite Scalia’s avowed commitment to many of the interpretive principles that Gorsuch also embraces, one could not imagine Scalia writing such an opinion, especially in light of the vitriolic dissenting opinions that he wrote to all four prior landmark opinions.
Because Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority of the Court, he was in the position to assign the majority opinion to Gorsuch. Had this been a 5-4 ruling without Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, the senior justice in the majority, would have decided which justice would write for the Court. In the two marriage equality rulings, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose approach to gay issues had been established in earlier cases, assigned the opinions to himself as senior justice in the majority. Ginsburg might well have assigned the opinion to Gorsuch in any event, to help secure his vote, especially as it was possible that if Ginsburg or one of the other Democratic appointees wrote an opinion embracing arguments Gorsuch could not accept, he might either drift away or write a concurrence in the judgment, resulting in a plurality opinion. It is even possible that Roberts’ vote came from his institutional concern that such a significant ruling have the weight of a 6-3 vote. Since there were already five votes in favor of the employee parties, his vote would not affect the outcome, but would give him some control over the opinion through his assignment to Gorsuch.
The 1996 landmark gay rights ruling was Romer v. Evans, a decision that established for the first time that a state’s discrimination against “homosexuals” violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, striking down a homophobic amendment that Colorado voters had added to their state constitution, forbidding the state from providing anti-discrimination protection to gay people. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a 6-3 Court found that the only explanation for the Colorado amendment’s adoption was animus against lesbians and gay men, never a constitutionally valid reason, so the Court did not expressly consider whether heightened scrutiny would apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
The second landmark decision was Lawrence v. Texas (2003), declaring that a state law making gay sex a crime violated the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, and overruling a 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had rejected such a challenge to Georgia’s penal law.
The third landmark, United States v. Windsor, held in 2013 that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that states had authorized, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had put into the United States Code a definition of marriage limited to different-sex couples. The Court held that this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection rights of same-sex couples under the 5th Amendment, again without explicitly engaging in discussion of whether a law discriminating based on sexual orientation is subject to heightened scrutiny.
The fourth landmark, Obergefell v. Hodges, held in 2015 that gay people enjoyed the same fundamental right to marry that had previously been guaranteed to straight people under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Since the Court dealt with this as a fundamental rights case, both from the perspectives of due process and equal protection, it again avoided discussing whether the discriminatory aspect of the case implicated a suspect or quasi-suspect classification of sexual orientation.
In each of these cases, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., wrote for the Court. The decisions were noteworthy as being the product of an otherwise conservative Court whose Republican appointees outnumbered the Democratic appointees. In Windsor and Obergefell, Kennedy was the only Republican appointee to side with the Democratic appointees to make up the 5-4 majority of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, cast a sixth vote for the prevailing parties in Romer and Lawrence. Her replacement, Justice Alito, dissented in Windsor and Obergefell, as well as Bostock.
The Bostock decision, incorporating two other cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was the first major LGBT rights decision by the Court since Kennedy retired and Trump made his second appointment to the Court, seemingly locking in a solid conservative majority that was expected not to be so receptive to LGBT rights claims. With the retirement of Kennedy, it was widely believed that it would be unlikely for a gay rights claim to carry a majority of the Court.
Consequently, when the Court announced more than a year ago that it would review these three cases, tremors ran through the LGBT rights legal community. Although progress had been made in persuading the Obama Administration – including the EEOC – and the lower federal courts that Title VII’s ban on “discrimination because of an individual’s sex” could be interpreted to forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, it was difficult for people to count a fifth vote to add to the presumed votes of the Democratic appointees on the Court. Chief Justice Roberts had emphatically dissented from the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, and LGBT rights groups had strongly opposed the nominations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, based on their extremely conservative records as court of appeals judges, which was seemingly borne out in Gorsuch’s case by his dissent in Pavan v. Smith (2017), taking the transparently incorrect position that the Court had not clearly held in Obergefell that same-sex marriages must be treated the same as different-sex marriages for all legal purposes, including birth certificates, something specifically mentioned in Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. Nobody really thought it possible that Alito or Thomas would ever cast a vote in favor of an LGBT employee’s claim, but Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were a question marks, as was the unpredictable chief justice, despite his anti-LGBT voting record up to that time.
The only facts about these cases that were relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision were that the three employees whose discrimination claims ended up before the Court claimed that they were fired because of their sexual orientation (Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda) or their gender identity (Aimee Stephens) in violation of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. The merits of the Title VII claims had not been decided in Bostock or Zarda, because the district courts in both cases found the claims not to be covered under Title VII and dismissed them. Aimee Stephens’ Title VII claim survived a motion to dismiss, however; the district court found that although Title VII, standing alone, was violated in her case (but solely using a gender stereotype theory rather than holding the gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII), but that the employer, a deeply religious funeral home owner, had a valid defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so granted judgement to the employer. The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal in Bostock, as did a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, but the 2nd Circuit ultimately reversed the dismissal en banc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had sued on Stephens’ behalf, appealed to the 6th Circuit, which reversed the district court, finding the RFRA defense invalid, and ruling that Stephens’ gender identity discrimination claim had been proven. The 6th Circuit also rejected the district court’s conclusion that the EEOC, representing Stephens, was limited to a gender stereotyping claim, expanding on its prior precedents to hold that gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. Thus, the only final merits ruling in the cases before the Court was the EEOC’s (and Stephens’) victory in the 6th Circuit. Stephens had intervened at the 6th Circuit, represented by the ACLU, making her a respondent alongside the EEOC in the Supreme Court.
After the Trump Administration took office, the Solicitor General took over the case from the EEOC and, consistent with the Administration’s view that Title VII did not forbid gender identity discrimination, effectively “changed sides,” arguing that the employer should have prevailed. But, surprisingly inasmuch as the employer was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom litigation group, the employer had not sought review of the 6th Circuit’s rejection of its RFRA defense, so the only question before the Court was the Title VII interpretation issue. Stephens was left to defend the 6th Circuit’s ruling, with the EEOC, represented by the Solicitor General, on the other side. The Solicitor General also participated as an amicus on behalf of the government in the Bostock and Zarda cases.
There was a big difference between the earlier landmark cases and this case. The four landmarks all involved interpretations of Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection, and were decided, in sometimes quite emotional opinions by Justice Kennedy, based on concepts of human dignity and equality. The Bostock case, by contrast, was a matter solely of statutory interpretation, and solely of Title VII (despite Justice Alito’s decision to dwell on the RFRA question in his dissent). Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most ardent “textualists” on the Court, Trump’s appointees, parted company about how to apply that approach in determining the meaning of a 55-year-old statute.
Textualists contend that statutory interpretation is a matter of figuring out what the meaning of statutory language was at the time it was adopted. Extraneous information, such as congressional committee reports, hearing transcripts, speeches on the floor of Congress or statements inserted into the Congressional Record, are generally rejected by textualists, who argue, as Scalia memorably wrote in a 1998 opinion also involving Title VII and sex discrimination, that “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
Gorsuch and Kavanaugh (as well as Alito) swear allegiance to this principle, but it took them in different directions in this case. Gorsuch, who had signaled this result as a possibility during the oral argument on October 8 last year, inclined towards a literalistic approach to the words of Title VII. While claiming that he was trying to determine “the ordinary public meaning” of the words at the time they were enacted, he rejected the argument that this meant that sexual orientation and gender identity could not possibly be covered, because he was persuaded by various arguments and examples that the statute as properly understood has always prohibited discrimination against people because of their “homosexuality” or “transgender status.” He wrote, “an employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex – such as firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex – discriminates against that person in violation of Title VII.”
Having accepted that point, he found persuasive several examples offered by counsel for Bostock and Zarda. Most prominent was the example of two employees, a man and a woman, with equally good qualifications, work records, and so forth, both of whom are attracted to men. The employer will hire the woman but reject the man. Because the employer will tolerate attraction to men by women but not by men, the employer’s refusal to hire the man is discrimination because of the man’s sex.
Stating his holding more generally, he wrote: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other facts besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.” The idea is that sex is supposed to be irrelevant to a personnel decision unless, as the statute provides, the employer can prove that sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job in question, an affirmative defense provision that Gorsuch neglects to mention. But Gorsuch agreed that making a personnel decision because the person is gay or transgender makes sex relevant to the decision, and thus is generally prohibited by Title VII. Or, as he put it quite strongly, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The issue, wrote Gorsuch, is whether the plaintiff’s sex is a “but-for” cause of the challenged personnel action, but it doesn’t have to be the sole cause, because the statute does not expressly require that. “When an employer fires an employee because she is homosexual or transgender,” he explained, “two causal factors may be in play, both the individual’s sex and something else (the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies). But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” Because all three cases being argued involved discharges, it is not surprising that Gorsuch mentions only discharges, but the clear important of the decision is that all the personnel actions coming within the scope of Title VII come within this ruling.
Responding to the argument that this could not possibly be the meaning of a statute passed in 1964, Gorsuch insisted that it has always been the meaning, it just was not recognized as such by the courts until more recently. He characterized this as the “elephant in the room” that everybody pretended was not really there. It was now time to recognize the presence of the elephant.
Aside from some passing references, Gorsuch’s interpretive discussion, and the examples he presented, focused mainly on the sexual orientation issue, but he was careful to mention gender identity or transgender status as well as sexual orientation whenever he stated his conclusions.
Alito unkindly stated in his dissent that Gorsuch’s conclusion that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII is “preposterous.” Alito’s focus on the “original meaning” of statutory language, which he documents at length, shows as a matter of the historical record that in 1964 gay people were widely reviled as sick criminals, so it is impossible in his view to read the statutory language of 1964 as forbidding discrimination on this ground. Furthermore, he pointed out, as of 1964 the public’s awareness of transgender individuals was slight at best. Indeed, the very terms “transgender” and “gender identity” were not even used until much later. That a statute enacted in 1964 could be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on this ground could not possibly accord with its “ordinary public meaning” at that time, he argued. But Gorsuch countered that Alito was talking about legislative intent, not contemporary meaning of the statutory language. As Scalia wrote so often in cases where he rejected evidence of legislative history, when the law is reduced to a written text, it is the text that is the law. Gorsuch even cited a few sources to suggest that some people at or near the time of enactment actually believed that gay or transgender people might have discrimination claims under Title VII.
“Ours is a society of written laws,” Gorsuch wrote. “Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Reading Alito’s dissenting opinion may induce nausea in the reader, so graphic is his recounting of the horrendously homophobic views of the government and the public towards LGBT people in 1964, but he recites them to make his point that prohibition of discrimination on these grounds could not possibly be a correct textualist interpretation of this language from his perspective. He started his dissent pointedly by saying that the Court was engaged in “legislation,” not interpretation. And he concentrated on shooting holes in Gorsuch’s examples of the situations that led Gorsuch to conclude that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgender identity is, at least in part, sex discrimination.
Alito also wandered far from the central question in the cases, interjecting discussion of various issues likely to arise as a result of the decision, such as hardship for employers with religious objections to homosexuality or transgender identity (such as the employer in the Harris Funeral Homes case), and objections by co-workers to transgender employees using bathrooms and locker rooms. Gorsuch rejoined that these were questions for another day, not presently relevant to decide the appeals before the Court, noting particularly that Harris Funeral Homes had not asked the Court to review the 6th Circuit’s decision rejecting its RFRA defense. Alito was definitely putting down markers for the future cases that the Court may confront.
Kavanaugh makes some of the same points as Alito in his dissenting opinion, but it is notable that he did not join Alito’s dissent. This may be at least in part a generational thing. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are considerably younger than Alito. By the time they were in college and law school, there were out gay people around and, on a personal level, they undoubtedly both agreed that as a matter of politics it would be appropriate for Congress to ban such discrimination. They just differed on whether the Court could reach the same result through interpretation of the 55-year old law. Kavanaugh noted that three-judge panels of ten circuit courts of appeals had rejected this interpretation. 30 judges out of 30, he wrote, more than once in his opinion, as if the unanimity of an incorrect interpretation somehow turned it into a correct interpretation. Obviously, these judges did not recognize the “elephant in the room”!
For Kavanaugh, this was really a “separation of powers” issue. The question for the Court, he wrote, was “Who decides?” The legislature has the power to make law, while the courts are limited to interpreting the statutes passed by the legislature. Here, agreeing with Alito, he asserted that the Court’s decision was violating the separation of powers. And he disagreed with Gorsuch’s approach to textualism in this case, find it too narrowly focused on individual works, thus losing the context necessary in his view to determine the contemporary “public meaning” of the overall provision in 1964.
However, Kavanaugh concluded his dissent revealing his political, as opposed to interpretive, preferences. “Notwithstanding my concern about the Court’s transgression of the Constitution’s separation of powers, it is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans,” he wrote. “Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit – battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s results. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, however, I believe that it was Congress’s role, not this Court’s, to amend Title VII.” Kavanaugh’s dissent largely ignored transgender people. His omission of them from this paragraph is inexplicable in light of the scope of the Court’s opinion and their activist role over the past several decades in seeking protection against discrimination.
Interestingly, Gorsuch premised the case entirely on a strict textualist reading of the statute, avoiding reliance on the alternative theories that the EEOC and some lower courts embraced. One such theory was gender stereotyping, grounded in the Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Court held that an employer who takes an adverse action because an employee fails to comport with stereotypes about women or men has exhibited an impermissible motivation for its actions under Title VII. Another theory, first developed in race discrimination cases, was that discharging a worker because he or she was engaged in an interracial relationship was a form of discrimination because of race. Neither this “associational theory” nor the sex stereotyping theory entered into Gorsuch’s rationale for binding Title VII applicable in Bostock.
The Court’s opinion has the immediate effect of extending protection to LGBT workers in the majority of states that do not ban sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws, but there remain significant gaps in protection. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, state and local government employees, and federal employees. It does not apply to the uniformed military (so this decision does not directly affect Trump’s transgender service ban), or to religious organizations in their policies on “ministerial employees.” Thus, a substantial portion of the nation’s workforce does not gain any protection from discrimination by this interpretation of Title VII, because a substantial portion of the workforce is employed by smaller businesses or is classified as non-employee contractors. Furthermore, as Gorsuch noted briefly but Alito expounded at length, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might be interpreted to “supplant” the Title VII protections in particular cases.
The potential application of RFRA is worth noting. Reading Gorsuch’s opinion, one might immediately identify this as a potential “poison pill.” A few years ago, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court suddenly discovered that business corporations could argue that a particular policy mandated by another federal law unduly burdened the employer’s free exercise of religion, and they might thereby escape compliance with the law if the government fell short in showing that its policy was the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling government interest. (In Harris Funeral Homes, the 6th Circuit interpreted RFRA in this context and found that the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex discrimination could be achieved only by an outright prohibition, without an exception for business owners who had religious objections.) Although Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby rejected the idea that an employer could make such an argument in defense of a race discrimination claim, Justice Ginsburg pointed out in dissent that Alito’s opinion failed to address the issue of sexual orientation, pointing to cases where businesses claimed a religiously-based right to discriminate against gay people. This is an issue that is hardly settled, and Gorsuch’s reference to the possibility of RFRA as a “super statute” to “supplant” Title VII protections in “appropriate cases” is ominous. Where a case does not involve “ministerial employees,” the full weight of Title VII normally applies to the issue of employment discrimination by religious institutions whether because of race or color, sex or national origin. Shortly, the Court will be ruling on some new cases about the scope of this “ministerial” exception, and may issue a decision that bears on cases in which, for example, gay employees of Catholic educational institutions have been terminated for entering same-sex marriages.
In addition, of course, Title VII only applies to employment decisions. It doesn’t affect decisions by companies about hiring people as non-employee independent contractors, and it doesn’t apply to the myriad other ways that LGBT people encounter discrimination through denial of services, housing, and other privileges of living in our society. This decision does not eliminate the need for enactment of the Equality Act, a bill that would amend numerous provisions of federal law to extend anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people, while amending Title VII to make explicit the coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps most importantly in terms of gap-filling, the Equality Act would add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal public accommodations law while at the same time expanding the concept of a public accommodation, and would also require federal contractors and funding recipients not to discriminate on these grounds.
Alito’s dissent suggested that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion could protect LGBT people from discrimination under all those other federal statutes that address discrimination because of sex. That would fill a significant part of the gap left by this decision, but not all of it, because, as explained in the previous paragraph, the Civil Rights Act provisions on public accommodations do not forbid sex discrimination and small employers are not covered. Alito appended to his dissent a list of more than 100 federal statutory provisions that he claimed would be affected by this decision, among them Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which courts have addressed disputes involving transgender students. This provides a useful “to do” list for the LGBT rights litigation groups, finding cases to firmly establish that the Court’s conclusion in Bostock applies to all those other protections. Closing the gaps through passage of the Equality Act and through passage of state and local laws to cover employers not subject to Title VII must be an ongoing project. There also may be an opening to persuade state courts that they should adopt similar interpretations of the prohibition of sex discrimination under their state laws.
An early test may come as courts confront challenges to a new regulation announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, just days before this decision was announced, reversing an Obama Administration rule under the Affordable Care Act’s antidiscrimination provision and “withdrawing” protection against discrimination under that Act for transgender people. Lawsuits were quickly threatened challenging this regulation. The ACA incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, so federal courts should read this consistentlyly with Bostock and hold that the regulatory action violates the statute.
Another important point to bear in mind is that coverage of a form of discrimination by the statute does not inevitably lead to a ruling on the merits for the employee. Title VII litigation can be very difficult, and many employees lose their cases early in the process due to procedural roadblocks or, in the case of sex discrimination claims, to the courts’ view that sex may be a “bona fide occupational qualification” in a particular case. When plaintiffs attempt to represent themselves, they may be felled by statutes of limitations, shortcomings in their factual pleadings, or limited resources to investigate the facts and articulate a convincing claim as required by federal civil pleading standards. Furthermore, many employers require employees to execute arbitration agreements when they are hired, so plaintiffs seeking to get their proverbial “day in court” may be disappointed to discover that they are relegated to arguing in private before an arbitrator, in many cases carefully selected by the employer based on his or her “track record” in ruling on employee claims. The road to vindication is not always a smooth one.
The Court’s decision was immediately controversial with certain conservative and religious groups, some of which quickly made spurious claims about how this ruling could interfere with their free exercise and free speech rights, but public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people for many years now, so there was no startled outcry by the public at large in the days following the ruling. Those who are cynical about the idea of judging by “neutral principals of law” have often exclaimed that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so they may characterize this opinion as more political than legal, but the “bipartisan” nature of the line-up of justices would rebut that contention. And, notably, many of the court of appeals decisions that have ruled this way in recent years have also been bipartisan. The opinion, in the matter of fact way that Gorsuch writes about “homosexual” and “transgender” people in the opinion, comes across as impassive by comparison to the florid prose of Kennedy, but it gets the job done.
Kavanaugh’s closing paragraph says that “gays and lesbians” should take pride in this victory, which was hard-earned through decades of political, legal and personal struggle. A brief pause to take pride in this ruling is appropriate, but pushing ahead to fill the remaining gaps in full legal equality is essential. A battle has been won, but not yet the war.
Unfortunately, neither Donald Zarda nor Aimee Stephens lived to learn of their victories. Zarda, who had been fired from a job as a sky-diving instructor, died in a sky-diving accident while his case was pending. Stephens was gravely ill by the time of the oral argument (which she attended, although wheelchair bound), and passed away just weeks before the Court’s decision. Gerald Bostock, however, gave delighted interviews to the press, and was looking forward to the remand back to the district court so that he would get his opportunity to prove that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination.
The Court was flooded with amicus briefs in these cases, too numerous to mention individually here. On October 8, 2019, the Court first heard arguments on the sexual orientation issue, with Pamela S. Karlen representing Bostock and the Estate of Zarda, Jeffrey M. Harris representing the Clayton County and Altitude Express, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco presenting the Trump Administration’s position in support of the employers. Next the Court heard arguments on the gender identity issue, with David Cole representing Stephens, John J. Bursch representing Harris Funeral Homes, and again Solicitor General Francisco representing the Trump Administration’s position that gender identity discrimination is not covered by Title VII. The EEOC, the respondent in the case, was not separately represented and did not support the government’s position, evidenced by the government’s briefs, which unusually did not list attorneys from the agency.

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North Carolina Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to North Carolina’s Exclusion of Coverage for Gender Transition from State Employee Medical Plan

On March 11, U.S District Judge Loretta C. Biggs denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal claiming that the State Health Plan’s categorical exclusion of coverage for treatment sought “in conjunction with proposed gender transformation” or “in connection with sex changes or modifications” violates the Equal Protection Clause, Title IX, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Kadel v. Folwell, 2020 WL 1169271, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42586 (M.D.N.C.). The state university defendants had moved to dismiss the Title IX claim, and the State Health Plan defendants had moved to dismiss the Equal Protection and ACA claims. The plaintiffs are all current or former employees of the university defendants, or dependents of university employees, which were all enrolled in the Plan and are the parents of transgender individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are seeking treatment that is categorically excluded from coverage under the Plan.

The plaintiffs jointly allege that since the 1980s the Health Plan covering employees of the state university and their dependents has denied coverage for medically necessary treatment if the need stems from gender dysphoria, as opposed to some other condition. Thus, a cisgender woman’s medically necessary mastectomy would be covered, but a transgender man’s mastectomy for purpose of gender transition would not be covered. With the exception of 2017, this exclusionary policy has been in effect. Third party administrators retained by the employers to administer the plans – Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (claims administrator) and CBS Caremark (pharmaceuticals) – sell this kind of coverage to other employers, this it would be possible for the state to include such coverage using their current administrators, who are experienced in dealing with such claims.

The statutory causes of action (Title IX and ACA) would require the court to conclude that discrimination because of gender identity is covered under the statutory prohibition of sex discrimination, while the constitutional claim would require a finding that gender identity discrimination claims are actionable under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Judge Biggs turned first to the statutory claims in her analysis. She first rejected the state university’s claim that the suit should not be against them, because the state government dictates the content of their employee benefits plans. She found that the defendants “offer” the plan to plaintiffs, and “participate” (or participated) in its availability. “Indeed,” she wrote, “had University Defendants not hired Plaintiffs, they would not have been permitted to enroll in the Plan at all. The Court finds, at this stage, those facts provide a sufficient nexus between the alleged injuries the University Defendants.” Also, responding to the University’s argument that a ruling against them would not redress the plaintiffs’ claims because the defendants are bound by state policy, Biggs wrote that “there are other wahys in which a favorable ruling on Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim could give them the relief they seek. First, Plaintiffs have asked for – and ‘personally would benefit in a tangible way’ from – an award of damages.” Further, she noted, the university defendants might offer supplemental coverage beyond what the state Plan provides. She also rejected defendant’s arguments that since some of the Plaintiffs are not themselves transgender, their injuries are only indirect, because the minor plaintiffs’ “only ties” to the university are through their parents’ employment. Judge Biggs found that the parents were in this case within the class of plaintiffs protected by Title IX.

Turning to the argument that gender identity claims are not cognizable under Title IX, Biggs took note of the fact that the Supreme Court was considering whether Title VII covers gender identity discrimination claims in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, No. 18-107, which was argued on October 8, 2019, and had not been decided yet. The defendants argued that this case should be put “on hold” until a Supreme Court ruling was issued. “Because courts in this circuit often look to Title VII when construing like terms in Title IX,” she noted, “the Supreme Court’s decision could potentially impact the viability of the Title IX claim in this case. At this time, however, this Court is left to make its own determination as to whether discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ encompasses discrimination on the basis of transgender status,” and she noted Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 302 F. Supp. 3d 730 (E.D. Va. 2018) and M.A.B. v. Board of Education of Talbot City, 286 F. Supp. 3d 704 (D. Md. 2918), in which other district courts also within the 4th Circuit have ruled that such claims are covered by Title IX. Biggs wrote that she “agrees with their reasoning and follows it here.” She also noted that some other district courts in other circuits have faced similar arguments challenging transgender exclusions under state employee benefit plans, and have ruled against the employing states in those cases.

“University Defendants do not seriously contest that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination because of sex (although State Defendants do),” she wrote. “Rather, in moving to dismiss for failure to state a claim, they simply rephrase their arguments related to standing. There is no dispute that ‘a recipient of federal funds may be liable in damages under Title IX only for its own misconduct; the parties just disagree over whether University Defendants’ conduct is sufficiently implicated in this case.” Biggs held that “at this stage” in the litigation, the plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the university defendants’ role in providing benefits to their employees are sufficient both for standing and for the Title IX claim, and denied the motion to dismiss the Title IX claim.

Turning to the ACA claim, the state defendants argued sovereign immunity. “Section 1557 does not purport to condition a state’s acceptance of federal funding on a waiver of sovereign immunity,” she wrote. “Nor does any other provision of the ACA. However, in the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act of 1986 (CREA), Congress explicitly stated that a state shall not be immune from suit in federal court ‘for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the provisions of any other Federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal assistance.” The 4th Circuit found clear congressional intent to waive the state’s sovereign immunity if they accepted money in programs that prohibit discrimination. The state’s response was that the lack of mention of gender identity or transgender status in Section 1557 shows that North Carolina did not “knowingly” waive its sovereign immunity with respect to discrimination claims on these bases. Disagreeing, Biggs wrote that the state’s potential exposure to such suits should not have been “surprising,” because “courts across the country have acknowledged for decades that sex discrimination can encompass discrimination against transgender plaintiffs. Further, as a general matter, ‘statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,’” citing Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1999). She asserted that surely the state would agree that Title IX covers sexual harassment claims, even though the word “harassment” does not appear in the statute. “By the same token, Section 1557 need not include the precise phrasing State Defendants demand to provide sufficient notice of a condition of waiver.”

Turning to the constitutional claim, asserted against specific state officials in their official capacity, she found convincing the case law supporting heightened scrutiny for gender identity discrimination claims as being essentially sex discrimination claims. “On its face,” she wrote, “the Exclusion bars coverage for ‘treatment in conjunction with proposed gender transformation’ and ‘sex changes or modifications.’ The characteristics of sex and gender are directly implicated; it is impossible to refer to the Exclusion without referring to them. State Defendants attempt to frame the Exclusion as one focused on ‘medical diagnoses, not . . . gender.’ However, the diagnosis at issue – gender dysphoria – only results from a discrepancy between assigned sex and gender identity. In short, the Exclusion facially discriminates on the basis of gender, and heightened scrutiny applies.” And, quoting from United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), she wrote, “A policy that classifies on the basis of gender violates the Equal Protection Clause unless the state can provide an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for the classification.” [Thank-you, Justice Ginsburg!] Judge Biggs found that at this stage in the litigation, “State Defendants have failed to satisfy this demanding standard” and, in fact, “the only justification presented thus far is that the Exclusion ‘saves money.’ Under ordinary rational basis review, that could potentially be enough to thwart Plaintiffs’ claim. However, when heightened scrutiny applies, ‘a State may not protect the public fisc by drawing an invidious distinction between classes of its citizens,’” quoting from Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250 (1974).

Next, Judge Biggs rejected the state defendants’ argument as a ground for dismissal the plaintiffs’ failure to join the Health Plan’s Board of Trustees as a required party, as they would have to vote to make any change in the Plan that would be required to repeal the Exclusion. She found that the state defendants “share primary responsibility for the operation and administration of the Plan” so an award of declaratory, injunctive and monetary remedies against them would “give plaintiffs all the relief they seek.”

Finally, rejecting defendants’ request that the action be stayed pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris Funeral Homes, Judge Biggs pointed out that “the potential harm to Plaintiffs resulting from even a mild delay is significant, as they will continue to be denied healthcare coverage for medically necessary procedures. In contrast, the ‘harm’ to Defendants of not staying this case appears to be nothing more than the inconvenience of having to begin discovery.” This is obvious. Since discovery hasn’t begun yet, there is no chance this case would be ready for a motion for summary judgment for many months, and the Supreme Court will likely rule in Harris by the end of June. “Judicial economy is, of course, a consideration,” wrote Biggs. However, this case is in its infancy, and it may be months before a decision issued in Harris – a substantial delay for those seeking to vindicate their civil rights. Given the ongoing harm to Plaintiffs and Defendants’ failure to present ‘clear and convincing circumstances’ outweighing that harm, this Court declines to exercise its discretion to stay the proceedings.”

Thus, pending motions to dismiss are all denied. As of the end of March, the defendants had not petitioned the 4th Circuit for a stay.

Counsel for plaintiffs include Deepika H. Ravi, of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Washington, DC; Meredith T. Brown and Tara L. Borelli, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., Atlanta, GA; Noah E. Lewis, of Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.; Omar F. Gonzalez-Pagan, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., New York, NY; and Amy E. Richardson, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Raleigh, NC (local counsel).

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