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Federal Court Overrules Board of Immigration Appeals’ Denial of Spousal Petition by Gay Man

Posted on: November 12th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland, an out lesbian whose nomination to the federal bench by President Donald J. Trump was recently confirmed by the Senate, has ruled that the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) erred in denying a petition by Thomas Valdivia, Jr., a U.S. citizen, to award spousal residency rights to his husband, Radu Cheslerean, a Romanian citizen.  Valdivia v. Barr, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191616 (N.D. Ill., Nov. 5, 2019).  The Board, affirming a district director’s decision to deny the petition, rested its ruling on its conclusion that Cheslerean had previously married a woman in order to obtain U.S. immigration benefits.

The story begins on December 31, 2005, when Cheslerean attended a New Year’s Eve party and met Nina Garcia, whom he married about a month later.  In August 2006, Garcia filed an I-130 Petition with the Immigration Service, seeking U.S. spousal residency rights for her husband. That November, Garcia and Cheslerean went with their lawyer to an interview at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Chicago.  After the interview, nothing happened until July 31, 2009, when the Chicago office director issued a Notice of Intent to Deny the I-130 petition.  In September 2009, USCIS denied the petition and Garcia appealed to the BIA, which dismissed the appeal in February, 2011.  Several months later, Garcia and Cheslerean divorced.  The Judgment of Divorce states that they “lived separate and apart as of March 15, 2007, and had no children together.

Several years later, Cheslerean married Valdivia on May 17, 2015.  On September 6, 2016, Valdivia filed an I-130 petition on behalf of Cheslerean, and the men were interviewed at the Chicago Field Office on January 12, 2017.  When the office issued a Notice of Intent to Deny, Cheslerean submitted an affidavit explaining his two marriages.  He stated that in his “relationship with Nina, we did not plan ahead, or have insurance or much other evidence of a commingled life because we had very little money, and any savings we had we would just spend.  We were young and immature and didn’t think about the future or plan ahead.”  Describing his relationship with Valdivia, Cheslerean wrote that he grew up in a conservative Christian orthodox family that treated homosexuality as a sin, and “coming to terms with who I am and living my life authentically as a gay man was a painful journey and it took me a lot longer than it takes other gay men these days.”  But the Chicago Director denied Valdivia’s petition in March 2017, and the BIA dismissed his appeal on December 14, 2017, leading to this lawsuit.

The premise for the BIA’s decision is a section of the immigration statute that says a Form I-130 cannot be approved if the beneficiary (in this case Cheslerean) has ever sought immigration benefits based on a marriage entered into to evade immigration laws — what the Immigration Service refers to as a “sham marriage.”  The agency and the BIA concluded that the marriage with Garcia had been for the purpose of getting immigration benefits and was not a genuine marriage.  Cheslerean tells a different story, and in this lawsuit, Valdivia and Cheslerean contend that neither marriage was a sham marriage, each was genuine in its own way, even though the earlier one did not last very long and came apart when Garcia’s I-130 Petition was finally denied by the BIA.

The BIA specifically emphasized an affidavit that Valdivia had filed in 2009 in support of Garcia’s petition of the I-130 on behalf of Cheslerean.  The BIA argued that “Valdivia offered no explanation in his 2017 affidavit (submitted in support of his own I-130 Petition on behalf of Cheslerean) why he did not include his account of the 2007 events in his 2009 affidavit filed in support of Cheslerean’s marriage to Garcia.”  In responding to this lawsuit, BIA argued that the two affidavits “created issues of credibility for all concerned” because Valdivia’s 2017 affidavit “made it obvious that he was being less than fully candid in August of 2009 when he did not disclose the true nature of his relationship to Cheslerean.”

But Judge Rowland was not convinced by this.  “Nowhere in the USCIS and BIA decision was Validiva’s credibility an issue, based on his 2017 affidavit or anything else,” she wrote.  “Defendants argue that the BIA ‘indicated they reviewed the response to the NOID that included the Valdivia affidavit.’  The BIA did state that it reviewed the response to the NOID, but nowhere in the decision did the BIA discuss or reference Valdivia’s 2017 affidavit or state that it created credibility issues for any of the affiants at the time.”  From a look-back to the earlier proceeding, it seems that the denial of Garcia’s petition was, as explained in Cheslerean’s affidavit in the current case, premised on the failure to check the boxes that CSIS uses to evaluate I-130 applications in an attempt to weed out sham marriages – most specifically the lack of commingled resources and other documentary evidence such as insurance policies.

“The USCIS and BIA did not based their decisions [in this case] on a finding that Valdivia failed to disclose his earlier attraction to Cheslerean,” wrote Judge Rowland.  “To the contrary, the USCIS found that the evidence submitted in response to the NOID ‘mainly reiterated what was stated in statements previously submitted in regards to the marriage of Ms. Garcia and Mr. Cheslerean.’” Thus, she found that the Defendant’s arguments now about the 2017 Valdivia affidavit violate a doctrine that an agency many not defend the administrative decision in the Garcia case based on a new ground that was not mentioned in its original decision.

The BIA now sought to rely as well on the fact that in 2009, the USCIS Director in Chicago explained the ruling by referring to an admission by Garcia that she and Cheslerean were “just friends” even though they were not formally divorced until after the BIA’s 2011 decision.  “Defendants raise the issue of the short duration of the Garcia-Cheslerean marriage and point out that Garcia’s 2009 affidavit stated that Cheslerean ‘is now a good friend.’  Neither the 2017 BIA decision nor the 2017 USCIS decision rely on this statement to support a finding of marriage fraud.  Moreover, this statement by Garcia refers to her relationship with Cheslerean in 2009, not their relationship when they married in 2006.”  Under agency and court decisions about these issues, it is clear that the question of “sham marriage” relates to the time the marriage was entered into, not the state of the relationship years later.

Judge Rowland referred to a prior immigration ruling stating that “the fact that a marriage at some point becomes nonviable or nonsubsisting does not in itself indicate that the marriage was a sham at its inception,” and since it is the purpose for which a couple marries that is the focus of attention for purposes of immigration law, the fact that Garcia and Cheslerean were no longer living together by the time the BIA denied Garcia’s appeal was not relevant to whether the earlier marriage should now be a disqualifying factor on Valdivia’s petition for residency rights for his husband.  Nobody is contending that the marriage between Valdivia and Cheslerean is anything but bona fide.

Ultimately, Judge Rowland concluded that the records about the earlier marriage and I-130 petition did not prove that the earlier marriage was a sham.  The story told by Valdivia and Cheslerean now is credible.  Garcia and Cheslerean met at a party and married, that marriage eventually broke up, perhaps we might speculate partly with Cheslerean’s discovery that he was actually falling in love with their mutual friend, Valdivia.  Cheslerean finally embraced his sexual orientation and became Valdivia’s boyfriend and then his husband.  Case closed.

Valdivia and Cheslerean are represented by Noelia Rodriguez-Quinones and Nancy Marcia Vizer of Chicago.

New York Federal Judge Vacates Trump Administration “Conscience” Regulation

Posted on: November 12th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer issued an extraordinarily lengthy opinion on November 6, concluding that a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) intended to protect from discrimination employees in the health care industry who refused to provide services because of their religious beliefs is invalid.   The case is State of New York v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019 WL 5781789, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193207 (S.D.N.Y.).

 

The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of states, cities, Planned Parenthood, and a Family Planning and Reproductive Health services organization, that stood to lose substantial federal funding for their programs if they were found to violate the regulation, which imposed substantial compliance requirements on them.  They argued that the measure violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on an “establishment of religion.”  But Judge Engelmayer, rejecting a “facial” Establishment Clause challenge, instead premised his ruling on other arguments by the plaintiffs, asserting violations of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Spending Clause and Separation of Powers requirements of the Constitution.

 

Judge Engelmayer summarized the Rule, which was adopted on May 21 (84 Fed. Reg. 23,170 – codified at 45 C.F.R. pt. 88), originally set to go into effect on July 22, to “interpret and provide for the implementation of more than 30 statutory provisions that recognize the right of an individual or entity to abstain from participation in medical procedures, programs, services, or research activities on account of a religious or moral objection.”  The statutory provisions, usually added to particular laws as amendments offered by legislators during congressional consideration of the bills, are usually referred to as “conscience provisions.” After this lawsuit was filed, HHS agreed to delay the effective date of the regulation until November 22, so it has never actually gone into effect and will not go into effect any time soon unless the government obtains a stay of Judge Engelmayer’s opinion pending an appeal.

 

Most of the conscience provisions are intended to protect employees who refuse to participate in performing abortions, sterilizations, or assisted suicides, but some go further, extending to any medical practice or procedure, and theoretically could protect employees who refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people due to religious or moral objections.  While some of the provisions were aimed specifically at licensed health care professional employees who actually perform such procedures, others could theoretically apply to any employee – such as an orderly, an ambulance driver, or anybody else employed in a supportive or administrative role – whose religious or moral beliefs would be compromised by providing the service in question.

 

In addition to describing the various statutory conscience provisions, Judge Engelmayer noted a provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” to the religious practices or beliefs of employees, with the test of reasonableness being whether the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  The Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted this provision to require employers to bear no more than a “de minimus” expense to accommodate religious objectors.

 

The George W. Bush administration promulgated a conscience regulation late in 2008 that was to take effect on the first day of the Obama Administration, but a legal challenge was filed and although “much of the rule” did take effect while the litigation continued, many contentious provisions were never rigorously enforced and HHS rescinded much of that Rule in 2011.

 

After taking office, President Trump issued an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which directed the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law” and generally stating that the federal government should protect religious freedom to the extent possible under the Constitution.  On October 6, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum proclaiming that under the 1st Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, an individual has “the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in according with one’s beliefs,” mentioning many of the statutory conscience provisions.  HHS then proceeded to issue a notice of proposed ruling-making to translate Sessions’ memorandum into written regulations, publishing its “final rule” on May 21, 2019.

 

Judge Engelmayer found that the 2019 Rule “substantially expands” on the 2008 Rule, applying to more than 30 conscience provisions (where the 2008 Rule applied to only three of them). He includes a detailed description of the Rule, including its very broad definition of which employees and entities are covered, a very broad definition of what counts as “discrimination,” and detailed procedures that employers in the health care field are supposed to follow to ensure that employees know about their rights to object or abstain, including requirements to certify their compliance with the Rule as a condition of receiving funding under federal programs, such as Medicare.  The stated intent of the Rules is to go as far as the Constitution and statutes allow in protecting those who object to doing their job because of religious, moral or ethical objections to particular procedures or practices by holding the loss of funding over employers who fail to accommodate religious objectors to the extent spelled out in the Rule.

 

The plaintiffs advanced five constitutional arguments against the rule.  They first argued that it violates the Establishment Clause, by forcing recipients of federal funds to “conform their business practices to the religious practices of their employees, imposing an absolute duty to accommodate such practices,” going far beyond the existing accommodation duty under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Second, they argued it violates the Spending Clause because the threat to withhold all federal funding for is “unconstitutionally coercive” and because the conditions it imposes are “ambiguous, retroactive, not reasonably related to the purpose of HHS’s programs under which the funds are provided, and thus unconstitutional.”  They argued that the Rule violates the constitutional separation of powers by, among other things, empowering the executive branch to unconstitutionally impound funds that Congress has appropriated.  They also made two Fifth Amendment arguments: void for vagueness as a result of ambiguities and inconsistences with other federal laws, inviting arbitrary enforcement; and violating the due process rights of patients to privacy and liberty, in particular by interfering with patients’ ability to obtain abortions and other procedures to which some health care workers object.

 

Judge Engelmayer rejected the government’s argument that the rule was merely a “housekeeping” measure intended to consolidate enforcement of the various statutory conscience provisions by centralizing enforcement in HHS’s Office of Civil Rights and to standardize definitions and requirements that varied among the thirty statutes.  Instead, he found, the Rule made substantive changes in the law.

 

“On this threshold dispute,” wrote the judge, “there is a definite answer.  Although the 2019 Rule has housekeeping features, plaintiffs’ description of it as largely substantive – and, indeed, in key respects transformative—is correct.  And HHS’s characterization of the Rule as solely ministerial cannot be taken seriously.”  He noted that the government had actually abandoned this position during oral argument.  “Whether or not the rule was properly adopted,” he wrote, it “unavoidably would shape the primary conduct of participants through the health care industry. It would upend the legal status quo with respect to the circumstances and manner in which conscience objections must be accommodated.  And the maximum penalty the Rule authorizes for a violation of the Conscience Provisions – the termination of all of a recipient’s HHS funding, from whatever program derived – is new, too.”

 

Supporting this conclusion, Judge Englemayer explained how the rule vastly expanded employers’ religious accommodation requirements under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, how it substantially broadened the definition of “protected activities” of religious objectors, down to the level of protecting a receptionist who might refuse to schedule a patient for a procedure to which the receptionist has ethical objections.  Unlike the statutory conscience provisions, he noted, the Rule would “for the first time” permit “abstention from activities ancillary to a medical procedure, including ones that occur on days other than that of the procedure.”  It also extended the definition of “covered entities” from health care providers to pharmacists and medical laboratories, and significantly expands the financial exposure of covered entities by authorizing draconian cut-offs of funding.

 

Judge Engelmayer decided the Rule is not a facial violation of the Establishment Clause, which would require finding that all of its provisions are unconstitutional in all their potential applications, but he acknowledged that it could be challenged “as applied” to particular situations – a test that might never arise because of his action in declaring the Rule invalid on other grounds.

 

First, the judge found that HHS did not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act governing the adoption of regulations, by going beyond the limits of rulemaking authority.  Agencies must base their rules and regulations on statutory policy decisions expressed by Congress, and cannot engage in legislating beyond those policy decisions.  The judge found that in this Rule HHS went over the line into legislation, especially noting the way the Rule expanded definitions, covered entities, enforcement authority, and penalties.  He found that HHS did not have authority under the APA to make all of these substantive legal changes without specific authorization in the statutes.

 

The sheer scale of the Rule’s potential impact played a large part in the decision.  The judge found that the Rule “puts in jeopardy billions of dollars in federal health care funds.  In fiscal year 2018, for example,” he wrote, “the State Plaintiffs received $200 billion in federal health care funding.  New York alone received $46.9 billion. The Provider Plaintiffs similarly received hundreds of millions in funding from HHS.”  He also noted the political significance of the Rule, as it took positions beyond those actually taken by Congress on such controversial issues as abortion and assisted suicide.

 

“In a case involving economic consequences and political dynamics on such a scale,” wrote the judge, “the Supreme Court teaches that ‘we expect Congress to speak clearly’ were it to delegate rulemaking authority. . .  Far from speaking clearly here, in none of the three statutes at issue did Congress give any indication that it intended to subcontract the process of legal standard-setting to an administrative agency in particular, or HHS in particularly,” noting that the three principal statutes with Conscience Provisions don’t even mention HHS.  And, the judge rejected the government’s contention that such a delegation was “implicit” in the enactment of those conscience provisions.  He noted that the Supreme Court had rejected a similar “implicit delegation” argument in connection with its interpretation of Title VII’s accommodation provisions and the attempts by the EEOC to interpret them.

 

He also concluded that HHS did not act in accordance with law in promulgating the rule, having taken shortcuts (rather typical of the Trump Administration) in skirting the detailed procedures set out in the APA.  The two most important flaws the court found were establishing rules that conflict with Title VII, and rules conflicting with the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA), by purporting to authorize employees with religious objections to withhold services in emergency situations.  The judge found that two basic Title VII concepts that the Rule “overrides” are key components of the specific language Congress adopted in 1972 amendments to Title VII “to address workplace religious objections.”  An agency cannot displace express statutory provisions by adopting a contrary rule.  Similarly, he noted that EMTLA “does not include any exception for religious or moral refusals to provide emergency care” and courts had declined to “read in” exceptions to that statute’s mandates, but the HHS Rule “applies in emergency-care situations,” purporting to create a “conscience exception” in a law that does not have one.

 

Also, turning to the APA’s substantive requirements, an agency that is adopting a rule that changes the law is required to document the need for such a change.  In this case, HHS just lied, claiming that there had been a substantial increase in complaints by health care employees about being forced to perform objectionable procedures or being disciplined for refusing to do so.  “In fact, upon the Court’s review of the complaints on which HHS relies,” wrote Engelmayer, “virtually none address the Conscience Provisions at all, let alone indicate a deficiency in the agency’s enforcement capabilities as to these laws.  And HHS, in this litigation, admitted that only a tiny fraction of the complaints that its Rule invoked as support were even relevant to the Conscience Provisions.  A Court ‘cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanations given,’” he wrote, quoting from Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion in June striking down the Trump Administration’s attempt to add citizenship questions to the 2020 Census Forms.  In that case, the Supreme Court found evidence that the Administration wanted to add the questions for political purposes, but prompted the Justice Department to come up with a phony justification invoking data needs to enforce the Voting Rights Act, even though experts in the Census Bureau warned that adding the questions would make the Census count less accurate by deterring non-citizens resident in the U.S. from participating.  He pointed out that the large majority of religiously-connected complaints received by HHS had to do with vaccinations, “which HHS admits fall outside the scope of the Conscience Provisions and the Rule.”

 

He also found unconvincing other explanations offered by HHS, and was especially critical of ways in which the Final Rule differed from the Rule as it was originally proposed and published for public comment concerning the definition of “discrimination.”  The judge concluded, in sum, that failed procedures in adopting the Rule under the APA were sufficient to invoke the court’s authority to declare the rule invalid and order it to be “vacated.”

 

But there was more, because the judge also found constitutional violations both of separation of powers and the Spending Clause.

 

Judge Engelmayer focused on the Rule’s remedial provision authorizing the termination of all HHS funding to an entity found to have violated the Rule, finding that this had not been authorized by Congress.  Thus, its adoption was a serious violation of the separation of powers.  He agreed with plaintiffs that the Rule “is inconsistent with the separation of powers because it allows HHS to withhold congressionally-appropriated federal funds to an extent that neither the [statutory] Conscience Provisions nor any other statute authorizes.  By claiming the power to do so, plaintiffs argue, HHS arrogates to itself, an executive agency, a power the Constitution allocates uniquely to Congress.”

 

Responding to this argument, the judge pointed out that an agency “must exercise its delegated spending authority consistent with specific congressional grant” and that an “agency may not withhold funds in a manner, or to an extent, unauthorized by Congress.” Thus, the remedial provision of the Rule exceeds the agency’s authority.

 

Furthermore, he found other violations specifically routed in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Spending Clause.  He noted four principles relevant to this case: “conditions based on the receipt of federal funds must be set out unambiguously,” the “financial inducement offered by Congress” must not be “impermissibly coercive,” the conditions must relate “to the federal interest in the project and to the overall objective thereof,” and “the power may not be used to induce the States to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional.”  Judge Engelmayer found it clear that the Rule violated at least the first two of these principles, pointing to specific ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Rule. And the draconian forfeiture of all funding as a remedy for a violation of the Rule was “impermissibly coercive.”

 

Finally, he concluded that the faults he had detected merited an order to the agency to vacate the Rule.  He pointed out that it has long been “standard practice under the APA” for a court to order that a rule be vacated when the court determines that “agency regulations are unlawful.”  He quoted a Supreme Court opinion on point, stating that “regulations subject to the APA cannot be afforded the force and effect of law if not promulgated pursuant to the statutory minimum found in that Act.”  The APA itself says that a court shall “hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings and conclusions” that the court finds to be “arbitrary and capricious, not in accordance with law, in excess of statutory authority, unconstitutional, or made without observance of procedures required by law.”

 

The judge rejected the government’s suggestion that he could go through the Rule stripping out objectionable parts and letting the rest go into effect, commenting that “the APA violations that the Court has found… are numerous, fundamental, and far-reaching.  The Court’s finding that HHS lacked substantive rule-making authority as to three of the five principal Conscience Provisions nullifies the heart of the Rule as to these statutes.  The Court’s finding that the agency acted contrary to two major existing laws (Title VII and EMTALA) vitiates substantive definitions in the Rule affecting health care employment and emergency contexts.  The Court’s finding that HHS failed to give proper notice of the definition it adopted of “discriminate or discrimination” voids that central dimension of the Rule.”  Letting a few selected provisions go into effect would “ignore the big picture: that the rulemaking exercise here was sufficiently shot through with glaring legal defects as to not justify a search for survivors.”

 

He also rejected HHS’s suggestion, common to Trump Administration arguments when courts are finding its executive actions invalid, that his order should be limited in effect to the Southern District of New York, or just to the named plaintiffs in the case, pointing out that this would lead to a proliferation of litigation around the country “to assure that such a Rule was never applied,” finding plenty of precedential support for this position in prior court of appeals opinions supporting trial court orders to vacate unlawfully promulgated rules.

 

“The Conscience Provisions recognize and protect undeniably important rights,” wrote Engelmayer.  “The Court’s decision today leaves HHS at liberty to consider and promulgate rules governing these provisions.  In the future, however, the agency must do so within the confines of the APA and the Constitution.”

Kentucky Supreme Court Avoids Ruling on Clash Between Free Speech and Anti-Discrimination Law in T-Shirt Case

Posted on: November 3rd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a case that drew 26 amicus briefs – an unusually high number for an argument in a Midwestern state high court, the Kentucky Supreme Court found an off-ramp from having to decide whether a small business that produces custom t-shirts has a right to refuse an order to print a shirt with whose message the business owner disagrees in Lexington-Fayetteville Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands on Originals, 2019 Ky. LEXIS 431, 2019 WL 5677638 (October 31, 2019).  The court decided that the appellant, the local human rights commission that had ruled against the business, had no jurisdiction because the entity that filed the discrimination complaint in the case was not an “individual” within the meaning of the local civil rights ordinance.

The case originated in February 2012 when a representative of the Gay & Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO), an advocacy organization in Lexington that was planning for its fifth annual Lexington Pride Festival, came to Hands On Originals, the t-shirt business, with an order for t-shirts to be used in connection with the Festival.  Hands on Originals is a small business with three owners, all of whom identify as Christians who operate the business consistently with their understanding of the Bible.  Their website has a non-discrimination statement, which includes “sexual orientations”, but says that “due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of Hands on Originals to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”  The design that GLSO presented bore the name “Lexington Pride Festival” with rainbow-colored circles around an enlarged number “5” in recognition of the 5th year of the Festival, and no other text.  The employee who took the order reviewed it and quoted a price.

“The following month,” wrote Justice Laurence V. VanMeter in the court’s opinion, “a different GLSO representative contacted Hands On about the price quote and spoke with Adamson [one of the owners], who had not yet viewed the t-shirt design.  Adamson inquired into what the Pride Festival was and learned that the t-shirts would be in support of the LGBTQ+ community.  Adamson advised the GLSO representative that because of his personal religious beliefs, Hands On could not print a t-shirt promoting the Pride Festival and its message advocating pride in being LGBTQ+.  Adamson offered to refer GLSO to another printing shop.”  In the event, after word about this got out, a Cincinnati business printed the t-shirts for GLSO free of charge.  But GLSO’s president filed a complaint on behalf of the organization with the local human rights commission, charging violation of the Lexington-Fayetteville Human Rights Ordinance, which forbids discrimination against any individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity by public accommodations.

The commission ruled in favor of the complainants, but was overruled by the Fayette Circuit Court, which instructed the commission to dismiss the charges.  The commission and GLSO appealed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court, but the panel split, producing three opinions, out of which a majority concluded that the anti-discrimination provision was not violated by Hands On engaging in viewpoint or message censorship as a non-governmental entity.

Justice VanMeter’s opinion focused on the language of the ordinance, which provides that an “individual” claiming to be aggrieved by an unlawful practice can file a complaint with the commission.  The court concluded, by examining both the context of the ordinance and the contents of other states referenced in the ordinance, that “only an individual – being a single human – can bring a discrimination claim” under the ordinance.  Although an individual, a representative of GLSO, had filed the original complainant with the Commission, it was not filed in his individual capacity but rather as a representative of GLSO.  Thus, because “GLSO itself was the only plaintiff to file a claim” and “it did not purport to name any individual on whose behalf it was bringing the claim,” therefore GLSO “lacked the requisite statutory standing” to invoke the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission.

The court pointed out that Hands On “argued first to the Hearing Commissioner that GLSO, as an organization, did not have standing under the ordinance to bring a claim.”  The Hearing Commissioner rejected that argument, reaching a conclusion that the court rejects in this opinion: that an “individual” as named in the ordinance could also be an organization.  Hands On continued to push this argument through all levels of review, so it was not waived when the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decisions.

“While this result is no doubt disappointing to many interested in this case and its potential outcome,” wrote Justice VanMeter, “the fact that the wrong party filed the complaint makes the discrimination analysis almost impossible to conduct, including issues related to freedom of expression and religion.  Normally in these cases, courts look to whether the requesting customer, or some end user that will actually use the product, is a member of the protected class.  And even when the reason for the denial is something other than status (conduct, for example), ways exist to determine whether the individual(s) (the requesting customer(s) or end user(s)) was actually discriminated against because of the conduct cited is so closely related to that individual’s status.  But in either scenario (whether the person allegedly discriminated against is the requesting customer or some end user) the individual is the one who has filed the lawsuit, so the court can properly determine whether that person has been discrimination against.”

VanMeter insisted that the court finds “impossible to ascertain” in this case whether the organization that filed the discrimination charge is a “member of the protected class.”  “No end user may have been denied the service who is a member of the protected class, or perhaps one was.  If so, then the determination would have to follow whether the reason for denial of service constitutes discrimination under the ordinance, and then whether the local government was attempting to compel expression, had infringed on religious liberty, or had failed to carry its burden” under the law.  “But without an individual . . .  this analysis cannot be conducted.”

This reasoning strikes us as hair-splitting in the extreme, but is not surprising considering that courts prefer to avoid deciding controversial issues if they can find a way to do so.  The Lexington-Fayetteville ordinance, by its terms, does not have protected classes.  Like the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is a “forbidden grounds” measure, not a “protected class” measure.  Everybody, regardless of their race, is protected from race discrimination, for example.  There are no “protected classes” who have an exclusive claim to being protected against discrimination on any of the grounds mentioned in the ordinance.  Thus, VanMeter’s explanation is premised on a misconception of the ordinance.  But, as a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court on a question of state law, it is final unless or until it is overruled by the Kentucky Supreme Court or rendered irrelevant by an amendment to the ordinance.  As it stands, however, it creates a large loophole in the coverage of the ordinance that was probably not intended by the local legislative bodies that enacted the measure.

Six members of the seven-member court sat in this case.  Four members of the court concurred in VanMeter’s opinion.  Justice David Buckingham wrote a separate concurring opinion.  Although he agreed with the court that GLSO lacked standing to file the charge, he wanted to express his view that the “Lexington Fayette Human Rights Commission went beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempted to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed.”  He found support in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision overruling the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that the organizers of the Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade case had violate the state’s human rights law by excluding a gay Irish group from marching in the parade, and a ruling earlier this year by the 8th Circuit court of Appeals reversing a district court decision concerning a videographer who sought a declaration that his business would not be required under Minnesota’s civil rights laws to produce videos of same-sex marriages.  In a lengthy opinion, Justice Buckingham cited numerous cases supporting the proposition that the government crosses an important individual freedom line when it seeks to compel speech.  “Compelling individuals to mouth support for view they find objectionable violates that most cardinal constitutional command,” he wrote, “and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned.”  While reiterating his support for the ruling on “standing” by the majority of the court, he wrote, “if we were to reach the substantive issues, I would affirm the Fayette Circuit Court’s Opinion and Order,” which was premise in this First Amendment free speech argument.

Because the court’s decision is based entirely on its interpretation of the local ordinance and various Kentucky statutory provisions and avoids any ruling on a federal constitutional issue, it is not subject to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which a straightforward affirmance of the Court of Appeals ruling on the merits would have been.

Most of the amicus briefs were filed by conservative and/or religious groups seeking affirmance of the Court of Appeals on the merits, and it is clear that the amici were determined to make this a major “culture wars” case in the battle against LGBTQ rights.  One amicus brief was filed on behalf of ten states that do not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws.  There were also amicus briefs from progressive groups (including progressive religious groups) urging the court to reverse the Court of Appeals on the merits.  The only LGBT-specific organizational brief was filed by Lambda Legal.

Supreme Court Denies Review in Two LGBT-Related Cases on First Day of New Term

Posted on: October 22nd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court announced on October 7 that it was denying review in two LGBT-related cases: Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431, a New York case, and Calgaro v. St. Louis County, No. 19-127, a Minnesota case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The more significant decision is to deny review in the Frank G. case.

In Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (N.Y. App. Div. 2018), the New York 2nd Department Appellate Division upheld a decision by an Orange County Family Court judge to award custody of twin boys to the former same-sex partner of the children’s biological father, and the New York Court of Appeals denied review.

The children’s biological mother, Renee, is the sister of Joseph P., the former same-sex partner.  Frank G., the biological father, had moved with the children to Florida without notifying Joseph P., who had a closely-bonded relationship with the children even though the fathers were no longer living together.  Joseph P. sued to be appointed a guardian of the children, at a time when the Court of Appeals had not yet recognized the parental status of same-sex partners.

After the Court of Appeals ruled in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), that same-sex co-parents could be recognized as having the same parental rights and standing as biological or adoptive parents in certain circumstances, even if they were not married to the biological parent or had not adopted the children, Joseph P. amended his complaint to seek custody.

Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods evaluated all the relevant circumstances and decided that the children’s best interest would be served by awarding custody to Joseph P. and according visitation rights to Frank G.   She did not find that Frank G. was “unfit”, but instead placed both fathers on equal standing and then considered which one would provide the preferable home for the twins.  Relying on Brooke S.B., the Appellate Division affirmed.  Frank G. tried to appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals, arguing that his Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were violated by the lower courts’ opinion, but the Court of Appeals refused to hear his appeal.

In past cases, the Supreme Court has recognized as a fundamental right the liberty interest of biological parents in the care and raising of their children.  In his Petition to the Supreme Court, Frank G. argued that this liberty interest was violated when he was deprived of custody in favor of a co-parent based on a “best interest of the children” analysis without any finding that he was unfit or unqualified to have custody.

The Petition argued to the Supreme Court that the case had national significance and needed a Supreme Court ruling, because various state courts have disagreed about how to handle parental custody claims by unmarried same-sex partners of biological or adoptive parents.  Since the Supreme Court is most likely to grant review in a case that presents important constitutional questions about which lower courts are divided, it seemed highly likely that the Court might decide to review this case.  The likelihood was enhanced because Frank’s petition was filed by Gene Schaerr, a former clerk of Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Antonin Scalia and a prominent anti-LGBT lawyer and partner in a Washington, D.C., firm that frequently litigates in the Supreme Court.  Furthermore, several amicus briefs were filed in support of the Petition, urging the Court to reaffirm the traditional doctrine that biological parents who are not found to be “unfit” always have custodial preference over persons who are not related to their children by biology or adoption.

Had the court taken this case, the current conservative majority might abrogate Brooke S.B. and similar decisions from other states that have been important precedents according equal standing to same-sex parents.  The denial of review means the law can continue to develop in the lower courts for now without intervention by the Supreme Court, which is at least a temporary victory for LGBT rights advocates.

The denial of review in the other case, Calgaro v. St. Louis County, 919 F.3d 1054 (8th Cir. 2019), was expected, since the conservative 8th Circuit found no merit to Anmarie Calgaro’s claim that she should be entitled to damages from individuals and institutions that had assisted her child, a transgender girl, when she decided to leave her unsupportive home before she had reached age 18 in order to transition.  Calgaro argued unsuccessfully in the federal district court in Minnesota and before the 8th Circuit that her constitutional rights as a mother were violated when the county and its public health director, the local school district and high school principal, and other private institutions respected her child’s wishes and kept Anmarie in the dark about where her child was living.  She also objected to being excluded from decisions about her child’s transition.

Of course, the case raises important issues, but the Supreme Court has shown great reluctance to get involved with cases that are effectively moot, and in this case E.J.K., the child in question, has long passed the age of 18, thus achieving adult status under Minnesota law and being entitled to emancipate herself from control by her parent.  Calgaro is represented by the Thomas More Society, a Catholic lawyers group that generally focuses on religious free exercise cases, occasionally in opposition to LGBT rights.  E.J.K. is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  Two conservative groups filed amicus briefs urging the Court to take the case.

Federal Judge Voids Tampa Ban on Conversion Therapy

Posted on: October 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge William F. Jung ruled on October 4 in Vazzo v. City of Tampa, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172734, 2019 WL 4919302 (M.D. Fla.), that the state of Florida’s pervasive regulation of professional health care deprives the city of Tampa from the authority to impose sanctions on licensed health care workers who perform “conversion therapy” on minors.

Jung’s ruling was a startling departure from the way most courts have responded to challenges against laws cracking down on the charlatans who engage in this discredited practice.  Several federal courts, including some courts of appeals, have rejected challenges based on the 1st and 14th Amendments, but those cases mainly involved state laws.  Although the challengers in the Tampa case – Robert L. Vazzo, David Pickup, and Soli Deo Gloria International, Inc. – made those same constitutional arguments, which provided the basis for their case to be in federal court, Judge Jung resolved the case on a state law basis that appeared to be a mere make-weight in the original Complaint.

Tampa passed its ordinance in April 2017.  It bans “therapy” within the City by medical doctors and mental health professionals intended to assist minors to avoid being gay or transgender.  The ordinance uses the term “conversion therapy,” but the practice is also sometimes referred to as “sexual orientation change efforts” or SOCE.  The ordinance cites numerous professional studies discrediting SOCE and contending that it may be harmful to minors, and also cites decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 3rd and 9th Circuits upholding New Jersey and California statutes making the performance of this “therapy” a violation of licensing standards that could subject the practitioners to penalties and possible loss of licensure.  A New Jersey state court has also condemned the practice under that state’s consumer fraud statute.

The Tampa City Council stated its intention to protect minors from being subjected to a potentially harmful practice, premised on its authority to exercise its police power for the public safety, health and welfare.  Enforcement was assigned to the same city employees who enforce other standards and codes.

Vazzo, a marriage and family therapist licensed in Florida, practices SOCE on minors, claiming that his treatment may help minors “reduce or eliminate same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors or identity,” and claiming that his therapy is rendered entirely in speech.  He also claimed that all clients initiate SOCE counseling by giving informed consent; a questionable assertion when they are minors who, under the law, are recognized as having only limited capacity to give legal consent to a variety of things.  As a practical matter, this normally involves parents who want to “cure” their children from being gay or trans and give consent to the SOCE practitioner on their children’s behalf.

Co-plaintiff David Pickup was the lead plaintiff in a case challenging California’s state law ban on SOCE, and claims in this case that he had intended to get Florida certification and treat patients in Tampa.  The other plaintiff is an organization that refers individuals, including minors, for SOCE treatment.

Jung invoked a doctrine called “implied preemption.”  When a state pervasively regulates a particular activity, it may be found to have “occupied the field” of regulating that activity, thus depriving local governments of doing the same, particularly if the local regulation may conflict in some way with the state regulation or interfere with the state’s ability effectively to regulate.  By contrast, the doctrine of “express preemption” applies to situations where the state constitution or a state law or regulation explicitly reserves sole authority over a particular subject to the state.  Thus, application of implied preemption requires the court to provide a justification for finding that the local government should not be allowed to regulate a particular activity, whereas “express preemption” relies on a clear statement by the legislature that its regulation of a field is exclusive.

Analyzing implied preemption in this case, Judge Jung wrote, “There is no grant of authority by the Florida legislature to municipalities to substantively regulate healthcare treatment and discipline.  The State, not localities, occupies this field. . .  Here, there is nothing local or unique to Tampa about SOCE that would suggest the statewide, uniform medical regulation regime should vary because of Tampa’s peculiarities, and should vary across the State, from town to town and from county to county. The matter legislated against – SOCE – is statewide, not Tampa-specific.  And, a uniform and statewide system of healthcare treatment and practitioner discipline already exists, for sound reasons.  Implied preemption is a disfavored remedy because cities have broad powers to address municipal concerns.  But substantive regulation of psychotherapy is a State, not a municipal concern.”

The judge also suggested that the Tampa Ordinance “encroaches upon” five state-mandated areas.

First, he found that Florida’s constitution protects a broad right of privacy against government intrusions, which “suggests that government should stay out of the therapy room.”

Second, he notes that Florida court cases recognize that “with very few exceptions, parents are responsible for selecting the manner of medical treatment received by their children,” and the ordinance interferes with the right of parents to select SOCE for their children.

Third, he points to the state’s statutory “Patient Bill of Rights,” which protects a patient’s right to select the course of treatment that he or she deems best.  He finds that “the Tampa Ordinance enters this area at odds with this portion of the Florida statutory scheme.”

Fourth, he notes a provision of the Florida law regulating health care which states, as “legislative intent,” that “citizens be able to make informed choices for any type of health care they deem to be an effective option for treating human disease, pain, injury, deformity, or other physical or mental condition,” and that “the health care practitioner may, in his or her discretion and without restriction, recommend any mode or treatment that is, in his or her judgment, in the best interest of the patience in accordance with the provisions of his or her license.”  He asserts that the Tampa Ordinance seeks to place a restriction where state law says there should be none.

Fifth, he asserts that the Tampa Ordinance interferes with the state’s statutory doctrine of informed consent.  Florida law allows health care workers to perform procedures with the informed consent of their patients, by protecting doctors against liability for performing procedures with a patient’s informed consent “so long as the substantial risks and hazards are fully disclosed and accepted.”  He finds that the Tampa Ordinance “simply ignores this well-known and broad Florida concept of informed consent,” subjecting health care practitioners to potential sanctions if they perform SOCE with the full informed consent of their patients.

In effect, he finds, if opponents of SOCE want to see the government restrict health care practitioners from engaging in this practice, they have to convince the medical boards that control the licensing practice that they should condemn SOCE as a violation of standards, or get the legislature to ban the practice.  “Tampa’s divergent standard for punishing errant mental health therapy is relevant in the preemption analysis because it creates a danger of conflict with an area pervasively regulated, for which the Legislature has stated a policy of statewide uniformity,” he concluded, noting particularly the detailed regulations and educational requirements for those seeking to hold the kind of licensing certification that Vazzo has earned.

Judge Jung, treading in controversial waters, goes on to challenge the competency of the Tampa City Council to set standards for medical practice.  “With due respect for the citizen legislators on the Tampa City Council, none are skilled in mental health issues,” he wrote, “nor are any of the City’s code enforcement personnel.  In contrast the Florida Department of Health, with its skilled adjudicatory bodies, is equipped to address this dynamic area of psychotherapy.”  Then he challenges the “certitude” of the City Council’s factual findings by cherry picking isolated statements from statements by the city’s expert witnesses in this case that might be used to impugn some of the conclusions about SOCE and its effects.  Asserting that “the field of gender expression is especially complex,” he suggests that it is best left to the state regulators.

Having decided the case entirely on preemption grounds, Judge Jung expressed no view regarding the constitutional arguments under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  Those arguments have been mainly rejected by the courts, although some uncertainty has been injecting into this field by comments made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last year in an unrelated case, in which he castigated the concept of “professional speech” and cited with disdain the 3rd and 9th Circuit decisions mentioned above for having used that concept to analyze the 1st Amendment free speech issues.

Ironically, at the same time as Judge Jung was rendering his decision, rulings rejecting challenges to anti-conversion therapy laws passed by two other local Florida governments are on appeal before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Florida legislature and state house, fully controlled by Republicans, are not going to address this issue, which is why Florida has been a hotbed of local legislative activity.  It will be interesting to see whether the preemption issue is raised by the 11th Circuit in considering the appeals in those cases, and whether the City of Tampa – which has an out lesbian mayor and a very political active LGBTQ community – will seek to appeal this ruling.

Vazzo and his co-plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from Liberty Counsel, an advocacy legal organization that seeks to deny liberty to LGBTQ people whenever possible.

Judge Jung, appointed by President Donald Trump, has been on the bench for barely a year.

 

 

Texas Federal Court Vacates Transgender Protection under Obamacare

Posted on: October 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Reed O’Connor, a federal trial judge in the Northern District of Texas, ruled on October 15 in Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177871, 2019 WL 5157100, that the Obama Administration’s regulation providing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a/k/a “Obamacare”) prohibits health care providers and institutions from discriminating against patients because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy” is invalid.  The judge “vacated” the rule, effectively ordering the government not to enforce it, although he declined to issue an injunction to that effect.

Government agencies and courts in several states have relied on the regulation, “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs & Activities,” 45 C.F.R. Sec. 92, in several important cases, ruling, for example, that state Medicaid programs and the insurance coverage that states provide to their employees had to provide coverage for medically necessary gender transition treatment.  The regulation has also been invoked in lawsuits challenging the refusal of private employers to cover such treatment, and theoretically also could be invoked to challenge refusals by health care providers to perform abortions, although it is uncertain whether it could apply to such refusals.

O’Connor’s ruling was not a real surprise, since he issued a “nationwide” preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the regulation on December 31, 2016, just as it was set to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  Consequently, it is uncertain how federal enforcement proceedings would have fared in the courts.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally adopted the regulation on May 16, 2016, as an official interpretation of the ACA’s anti-discrimination language, which mentions neither gender identity nor abortions.  Unlike most federal anti-discrimination statutes that list the prohibited grounds of discrimination, the ACA instead listed four other federal anti-discrimination laws, and provided in Section 1557 that “an individual shall not, on the grounds prohibited under” the listed statutes, “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The statutes listed were Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that received federal funds, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against people aged 40 or older by companies that employ 20 or more people, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits unjustified discrimination against people with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding.  HHS interpreted Title IX’s sex discrimination ban to include discrimination against an individual because of their “gender identity” or “termination of a pregnancy” in the context of the ACA.

Franciscan Alliance, an operator of faith-based health care institutions, and two other private sector plaintiffs, joined together with eight states to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas, shortly after the regulation was published, challenging HHS’s adoption of the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Franciscan Alliance specifically alleged that providing gender transition treatment violated its religious beliefs, and that the regulation would require them to perform abortions, also against their religious beliefs. The state plaintiffs, as well as Franciscan Alliance, argued that the regulation was not based on a legitimate interpretation of the discrimination prohibited by Title IX. They also raised constitutional arguments that the court didn’t have to address, since it found the regulation to be invalid under these two federal statutes.

Concerned that the new regulations might be struck down, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU) and River City Gender Alliance (RCGA) filed motions in September 2106 to intervene as parties to help defend the regulation.  Judge O’Connor reserved judgment on this motion pending the filing of answer to the complaint by the federal government, but allowed ACLU and RCGA to participate as amicus parties and file briefs on the pending preliminary injunction motion.

Judge O’Connor developed a reputation during the Obama Administration for his willingness to issue nationwide preliminary injunctions against Obama Administration initiatives, usually at the behest of conservative state governments or faith-based organizations.  Because he is the only judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas who is assigned to sit several days a month in the satellite courthouse in Wichita Falls, Texas, a small city with a population of about 100,000 (roughly the size of South Bend, Indiana, for example), Judge O’Connor’s judicial propensities help to explain why several cases of national importance were filed by conservative opponents of the Obama Administration in that rather obscure courthouse.  Lawyers call this “forum shopping” — seeking out a particular court or judge because they are highly likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs based on their past performance.

While this litigation was going on, Judge O’Connor became embroiled in a Title IX lawsuit brought by states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation guidance to school districts concerning their obligations to transgender students.  In that litigation, he found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that Title IX did not apply to gender identity discrimination, issuing a nation-wide preliminary injunction barring the Education Department from requiring school districts to refrain from discriminating against transgender students.

When he issued his preliminary injunction in this case, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in showing that the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX did not extend to gender identity discrimination (as he held in the schools case), and that failing to incorporate religious exemption language from Title IX in the regulation violated the intent of Congress in its method of specifying prohibited grounds for discrimination under the ACA.  He also ruled that it was likely that attempts by the  government to enforce the regulation against faith-based health care providers would burden their free exercise of religion without sufficient justification under RFRA.  If the agency exceeded its statutory authority, its adoption of the regulation would violate the APA.

Just weeks after O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, Donald Trump took office and appointed new leadership for the various federal agencies that interpret and enforce the federal anti-discrimination statutes.   On May 2, 2017, the new leadership at HHS filed a motion asking the court to “remand” the challenged regulation back to the agency, because the new administration was going to be reviewing all of the Obama Administration’s regulatory actions and might make the case “moot” by rescinding the regulation.  Judge O’Connor granted that motion on July 10, 2017, and said he would “stay” further proceedings in the case while HHS decided whether to revoke the regulation.

Surprisingly, in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memorandum from the fall of 2017 opining that federal laws banning sex discrimination do not ban gender identity discrimination, as well as the Trump Administration’s repeatedly articulated hostility toward abortion, HHS has not yet undertaken the formal steps necessary under the APA to repeal or amend the challenged regulation, and evidently Judge O’Connor finally lost patience and decided to issue a ruling on the merits.  Having received briefing by the parties on the legal questions involved, he determined that he could render a ruling on the government’s motion for summary judgment, producing the decision published on October 15.

He referred back to his earlier preliminary injunction ruling, doubling down on his conclusion that when Congress passed Title IX in 1972, it knew that the EEOC and federal courts had been rejecting transgender individuals’ sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so as of 1972 Congress would believe that passing a new federal statute outlawing sex discrimination would not outlaw discrimination because of gender identity.

Getting further into the RFRA analysis, he found that the government does have a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in health care, but that the regulation did not impose the “least restrictive alternative” as required by that statute. Because there are non-faith based health care providers who will provide gender transition treatment and abortions, he wrote, it is not necessary to burden faith-based providers in order to make it possible for individuals to get those treatments.  They can just go elsewhere.

Thus, Judge O’Connor extended his earlier opinion to hold, as a final ruling on the merits, that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the regulation exceeded the interpretive authority of HHS in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and that enforcement of those provisions against faith-based health care providers would violate their rights under RFRA.

Judge O’Connor found that because the defendants (the Trump Administration) was no longer affirmatively defending the regulation, ACLU and RGCA were entitled as of right to intervene as co-defendants in order to provide a defense. This was an important step, since only an actual party can appeal a decision. However, Judge O’Connor pointed out that the intervenors will have to establish individual standing to do so if they want to take this case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The district court could just rely on their allegations that they have members who would be adversely affected by the regulation being struck down in order to grant their intervention motion, but their standing to appeal the ruling might be challenged in the 5th Circuit which, for example, has vacated a ruling against Mississippi’s draconian anti-LGBT statute on grounds that the organizational plaintiffs did not have “standing” to challenge the law before it had gone into effect.

Judge O’Connor did not strike down the regulation in full, merely holding that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” was not authorized by the statute and thus that those portions of the regulation are “vacated.”  He refrained from issuing a nationwide injunction, presumably because the defendant – formally, the Trump Administration – is clearly going to comply, since it is no longer arguing that the regulation is lawful in light of the Sessions memorandum and the position it is arguing in the Harris Funeral Homes case at the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s action immediately raises the question whether his ruling is binding outside the Northern District of Texas.  Striking down the “unlawful” portions presumably does not just mean for purposes of one federal district.  Normally, the government would appeal such a ruling, but in this case, it seems unlikely that HHS or the Justice Department is going to appeal this ruling, which leaves that determination up to the ACLU of Texas and RGCA, in light of all the circumstances, including a national election just a year from now.

Federal Court Issues Preliminary Injunction against Enforcement of New York City Adult Establishment Zoning Regulations

Posted on: October 3rd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Continuing litigation efforts that date back a quarter of a century, a group of “gentlemen’s cabarets” (which the court alternatively describes as “strip clubs”) and adult bookstores located in Manhattan have brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of 2001 Amendments to the NYC Zoning Resolution as applied to “adult establishments.”  Numerous prior assaults on this measure, first passed during the Giuliani Administration in an attempt by the City to sharply reduce the number of adult establishments and to relocate them away from residential districts or close proximity to religious institutions, schools and other places where minors tend to congregate, were largely unsuccessful once they proceeded to the appellate level.  Surprisingly, however, given the City’s earnest attempts to beat back all challenges, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III relates that the City has not actively enforced the Resolution for eighteen years – effectively since the end of the Giuliani Administration.  Mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio turned their attentions elsewhere.  But the plaintiffs are concerned with the measure still on the books and the possibility it might be enforced against them in the future – thus this lawsuit.  725 Eatery Corp. d/b/a “Lace” v. City of New York, 2019 WL 4744218, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169873 (S.D.N.Y., Sept. 30, 2019).

In this ruling, Judge Pauley grants the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the measure while the litigation goes forward on the merits.  This is in some sense largely symbolic, in light of the City’s prolonged failure to enforce the measure.

The list of counsel accompanying the opinion goes on for two pages, and the judge mentions that in connection with the pending motions, “the parties have offered a Homeric record of affidavits, documentary evidence, and stipulations.”  Most significant among the objections, perhaps, is that the Resolution was purportedly justified by a 1995 study of ‘secondary effects’ attributable to the presence of adult establishments, especially when several were located close together.  The reality is that, as a result of early enforcement efforts during the Giuliani Administration together with economic, residential and commercial development activity in the City over the past twenty years, the studies are clearly out-of-date and no longer easily support the Council’s conclusion that the rather drastic restrictions on the siting of adult establishments is still necessary in terms of public order and impact on property values.  Enforcement under Giuliani reduced the number of adult establishments and led to many of them significantly modifying their activities to try to avoid being labeled as adult establishments.

As Judge Pauley explains: “Tracing its origins to the City’s early 1990s crusade against adult entertainment businesses, this litigation has been ensnared in a time warp for a quarter century.  During that interval, related challenges to the City’s Zoning Resolution have sojourned through various levels of the state and federal courts.”  A major portion of the opinion is devoted to reciting in great detail the history of that litigation, from the initial 1995 enactment through the consequential 2001 amendments and a series of judicial decisions which culminated in a 2017 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals holding that the most recent version of the measure is constitutional, which was stayed until the Supreme Court denied review early in 2018.  For the People Theatres of N.Y., Inc. v. City of New York, 29 N.Y.3d 340, 57 N.Y.S.2d 69, 79 N.E.3d 461 (N.Y. 2017).

This new law suit was brought by Manhattan establishments that would not be considered “adult establishments” under the 1995 Regulation (which was construed by the courts to exempt establishments that devoted less than 40% of their space or stock to adult uses) but would be considered “adult establishments” under the 2001 amendments (which broadened coverage to deal with alleged “sham” reconfigurations that the City claimed had resulted in adult establishments continuing to operate while evading coverage).  In this case, the plaintiffs alleged deprivations of their 1st and 14th Amendment rights, arguing that if the 2001 Amendment were actively enforced, they “would decimate – and have already dramatically reduced – adult-oriented expression.”  The plaintiffs pointed out, restricting themselves to Manhattan numbers, that “the fifty-seven adult eating or drinking establishments existing at the time the City adopted the 2001 Amendments have now been culled to as few as twenty such establishments.  And for their part, the bookstore plaintiffs claim that of the roughly forty adult bookstores with booths that existed at the time of the 2001 Amendments, only twenty to twenty-five bookstores currently exist.”  They also pointed out that of these bookstores, virtually none are located in “permissible areas” under the 2001 Amendments.  The bookstore plaintiffs also pointed out that if the City were to actively enforce the 2001 rules, there would be very few places in the City, much less Manhattan, where such businesses could operate, essentially reduced to “undeveloped areas unsuitable for retail commercial enterprises, such as areas designated for amusement parks or heavy industry or areas containing toxic waste.”  They also noted yet again that the study of “secondary effects” conducted by the City prior to enactment of the 1995 measure has never been updated, never been validated in light of the 40% rule, and had addressed a Cityscape radically different from what exists today.

In deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction – and noting that the City is not actively enforcing the current regulations – the court addressed several crucial factors: whether enforcement would inflict an irreparable injury on the plaintiffs, the likelihood the plaintiffs would succeed on their constitutional arguments, the balance of hardship on the plaintiffs and the City, and the Public Interest.

First, Judge Pauley concluded, “assuming that the 2001 Amendments – which purportedly impose a direct limitation on speech – violate the Constitution, Plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable harm.”  This conclusion was based on many court opinions finding that monetary damages are insufficient to compensate somebody for a loss of their constitutional rights.

Turning to likelihood of success on the merits, the judge found that the weak link in the defendants’ opposition was the reduction of the number of locations where adult establishments could operate if the 2001 Regulations were enforced.  Precedents require that any regulation of adult uses must, because of its impact on freedom of speech, leave “reasonable alternative channels” for the speech to take place and be heard.  In other words, the zoning rules must allow enough appropriate locations so that adult businesses can operate and members of the public can access their goods and services.  “On this preliminary record,” wrote Pauley, “this Court is skeptical that the 2001 Amendments leave open sufficient alternative avenues of communication.  With respect to the outer boroughs, the DCP [Department of Consumer Protection] generated a map for each borough identifying the areas allowing and prohibiting adult establishments as of October 31, 2019. . . .  Compared to the maps the DCP created in connection with the 1995 Regulations, the 2019 maps appear to offer slightly less available space for adult entertainment.  But the City’s maps do not seem to indicate how the amount of available land would be affected by the requirement that adult establishments be located at least 500 feet from sensitive receptors or other adult establishments.”  After a critical analysis of the evidence presented, Pauley concluded that “plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated at this stage that the enforcement of the 2001 Amendments will deny them adequate alternative channels to offer their adult expression.”

Finally, the court determined “that the balance of hardships weighs in favor of Plaintiffs, and the issuance of preliminary injunctive relief would not disserve the public interest.”  The plaintiffs submitted affidavits showing that enforcement would cause them to lose their businesses, breaching contracts and leases, having to lay off employees, and suffering the financial and time costs of relocation.  Furthermore, since the City has not been actively enforcing these rules for eighteen years, according to the court, a preliminary injunction would not result in any harm to the City.  “While this Court credits Defendants’ contention that the 2001 Amendments are designed to abate the pernicious secondary effects of adult establishments,” wrote Pauley, “it also recognizes that the City ‘does not have an interest in the enforcement of an unconstitutional law.’”

Pauley’s concluding remarks leave little doubt about his skepticism about the further need for the adult zoning rules as last amended in 2001.  “The adult-use regulations that are the subject of these now-revived constitutional challenges are a throwback to a bygone era,” he wrote.  “The City’s landscape has transformed dramatically since Defendants last studied the secondary effects of adult establishments twenty-five years ago.  As Proust might say, the ‘reality that [the City] had known no longer existed,’ and ‘houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years,’” quoting from Remembrance of Things Past (1913).  But, the judge was careful to caution that this was not a final ruling on the merits, and that issuing the preliminary injunction “says nothing about whether Plaintiffs will in fact succeed on the merits of their claims.” He set a status conference for October 31, and directed the parties to file a “joint status report” by October 24 “detailing their respective positions on how to proceed with the balance of this action.”  He also directed that they confer on a discover plan as the case moves forward.  Of course, in light of the passage of time and the changes in the City, what would make sense would be for the City to negotiate a settlement that would involve substantial revisions to the adult-use zoning provisions to reflect the changed situation.

The number of law firms with a piece of this case is altogether too long to list here.

Alliance Defending Freedom Asks Supreme Court to Revisit Religious Exemption Issue

Posted on: October 1st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious freedom litigation group, is asking the Supreme Court to take a second look at Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, No. 19-333 (Docketed September 12, 2019), in which the Washington Supreme Court held that a florist who refused to provide her usual custom floral design and installation wedding services for a same-sex couple had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law, and did not have a valid 1st Amendment defense.  The Washington court’s original decision was vacated by the Court in June 2018 for reconsideration in light of the Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018), but the Washington Supreme Court reiterated its earlier holding, 441 P.3d 1203 (Wash. 2019), finding that the record of proceedings in the Superior Court and the Supreme Court in the earlier litigation showed no evidence of hostility to religion and thus was not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece.

The Petition proposes two questions for review:  1. Whether the State violates a floral designer’s First Amendment rights to free exercise and free speech by forcing her to take part in and create custom floral art celebrating same-sex weddings or by acting based on hostility toward her religious beliefs; and 2. Whether the Free Exercise Clause’s prohibition on religious hostility applies to the executive branch.

In the first question, the Petitioner asks the Court to take up the underlying constitutional issues in Masterpiece Cakeshop, which the Court evaded in its opinion, and to resolve them once and for all, pointing to litigation from around the country in which small businesses had declined to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings, based on the religious beliefs of the proprietors, and had been hauled into state human rights commissions or courts on charges of violating anti-discrimination laws.  There have been mixed results in these cases.  Beginning with a recalcitrant wedding photographer in New Mexico and continuing with cases involving bakers, florists, commercial wedding venues, stationers and videographers, administrative agencies and courts consistently ruled against allowing religious belief exemptions from generally-applicable anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation.  However, more recently, there has begun what may be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction, sparked in part by persistent appeals by ADF from adverse administrative and trial court rulings in affirmative litigation seeking declaratory judgments to establish religious exemptions.

In Masterpiece, the Court found several grounds taken together upon which to reverse the Colorado Court of Appeals’ ruling against the baker, most notably characterizing some public comments by Colorado commissioners that the Court found to evidence open hostility to the baker’s religious views.  The Court also noted an inconsistency in the Colorado Commission’s dismissal of complaints against bakers by a religious provocateur who sought to order cakes decorated to disparage same-sex marriages and was turned down.  The Court also noted that at the time the couple approach the baker, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so the baker could have believed he had no obligation to make such a cake.  While reasserting the general principle that businesses do not enjoy a religious freedom exemption from complying with public accommodation anti-discrimination laws, the Court observed that litigations raising religion freedom claims are entitled to a “neutral” forum to decide their cases, not one evidencing hostility to their religious views.

In Arlene’s Flowers, ADF had filed a statement with the Court after Masterpiece suggesting that evidence of hostility could be found in that case, and the Washington Supreme Court took the remand as a charge to scour the record for signs of such, which it did not find.  The Washington court read Masterpiece to be focused solely on the hostility or non-neutrality of the forum deciding the case.  That case did not involve a hearing before an administrative agency, as the first decision was by the trial court.

In its second proposed question, ADF argues that this was error by the Washington Supreme Court, contending that while the Masterpiece ruling was based on open hostility by commissioners, it could not properly be read to impose a ban on governmental hostility only on government actors performing the function of adjudicating cases.  ADF argues that the Attorney General of Washington evinced hostility and discrimination against religion by seizing upon news reports to come down hard on the florist, threatening litigation if she did not certify that in future should would provide her services to same-sex couples for weddings, making public comments criticizing religious objection to providing such services, and failing to bring similar action based on news reports about a coffee-shop owner expelling “Christians” from his establishment “based on religious views they expressed on a public street.”  ADF also criticized as “unprecedented” the Attorney General’s action in suing under the state’s Consumer Protection Law as well as the anti-discrimination law.

The Petition’s statement of facts is artfully written to suggest a saintly woman who loves gay people and happily sells them flowers for a variety of occasions, but just balks at providing custom weddings services based on her sincerely-held religious beliefs.  It argues that there is no evidence in the record of hostility toward gay people by the florist, emphasizing the long relationship she had selling floral goods to the men whom she turned down for wedding-related services, and maintaining that she had not turned down their business because they were gay but rather due to her religious objections to their wedding, and trying to draw that distinction as requiring dismissal of the discrimination complaint entirely.

The Petition argues that the Washington  Supreme Court took too narrow a view of the Supreme Court’s doctrine concerning the obligation of the government to refrain from hostility towards religion, pointing to cases where the Court had found legislatures as well as adjudicators to have violated the 1st Amendment, and argued that executives, such as the Attorney General, were no less bound by the First Amendment.  The Petition builds on a recent ruling by the 8th Circuit in the videographer case reported last month, Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, 2019 WL 3979621 (Aug. 23, 2019), and seeks to position the Petitioner, a florist, in the same category of First Amendment expression.  In effect, the Petition asks the Court to hold that any business that engages in creative expression for hire cannot be compelled to provide its services for an activity of which it disapproves on religious grounds.

Without making it a central part of the argument, the Petition notes several instances in which various members of the Court have suggested a need to reconsider its long-standing precedent in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), intimating that this is the ideal case to do so.  That was the case that reversed decades of 1st Amendment free exercise precedents to hold that religious objectors do not enjoy a privilege to refuse to comply with religiously-neutral state laws of general application that incidentally may burden their free exercise of religion.  Employment Division prompted Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, applying the pre-Employment Division caselaw to the interpretation of federal statutes, and leading many states to pass similar laws.  A ruing overruling Employment Division and reinstating prior would law would, in effect, constitutionalize the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making it more difficult in many cases for LGBTQ people suffering discrimination to vindicate their rights through legislative action, since the state and federal legislatures cannot overturn a Supreme Court constitutional ruling.

Federal Court Enjoins Michigan Policy Requiring Faith-Based Adoption Agencies to Certify Same-Sex Couples as Suitable Adoptive or Foster Parents

Posted on: September 28th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker ruled that a faith-based adoption and foster care agency should not be endangered with loss of its license to function as a certified child placement agency under contract with the state of Michigan while a lawsuit proceeds challenging the state’s current interpretation of its non-discrimination law resulting from the settlement agreement between the state and some same-sex couples in a separate case.  Buck v. Gordon, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165196, 2019 WL 4686425 (W.D. Mich., Sept. 26, 2019).

The ruling follows a complicated series of events and is based on a detailed review by the court of the systems and procedures in place for adoption and foster care in Michigan.

According to Judge Jonker’s opinion, a Michigan regulation and the federal law under which financial assistance is channeled to Michigan to support the state’s adoptive and foster-care system requires that people seeking to be certified as qualified to be adoptive or foster parents not be subjected to discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, among many prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Because some of the private agencies under contract with the state to provide these services are “faith-based” agencies whose religious views would prevent them from certifying single people or same-sex couples as qualified, and the state legislature did not want to see such agencies abandon the field, the state enacted a statute in 2015 allowing faith-based agencies to refer applicants to other agencies to perform the evaluation process and issue the certifications if the agency’s religious beliefs would prevent them from being able to certify an applicant or couple.

Some same-sex couples challenged this “religious freedom” statute as violating their constitutional rights in Dumont v. Gordon, Case No. 2:17-cv-13080 (E.D. Mich., filed Sept. 20, 2017).  The state defended the statute, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, a long-time faith-based provider of such services, was drawn into the case, because the same-sex couples had approached St. Vincent and were referred elsewhere for their home study and certification.  After out lesbian Dana Nessel was elected Attorney General, during a campaign in which she criticized the state law which, which she said was authorizing discrimination against LGBT people, she changed the state’s position, and her office negotiated a settlement under which the state undertook to enforce the anti-discrimination rules without any exception for faith-based agencies.

St. Vincent, whose contract with the state covering adoption services expires September 30, 2019, was warned that unless it dropped its policy of referring same-sex couples to other agencies, its contract might not be renewed, which would mean not only the loss of state money but the loss of its status as a contracted services provider, which meant it could no longer function in the adoption placement service.  Its contract for foster care services runs through September 30, 2021, so is not in immediate danger of non-renewal.

In this lawsuit, St. Vincent and some of the foster and adoptive parents who have worked with it in the past brought suit challenging the state’s action, seeking the protection of the statute that was challenged in the earlier case, and a declaration that any requirement for St. Vincent to drop its objection to examining and certifying same-sex prospective adoptive or foster parents would violate the 1st and 14th Amendments.  In addition to naming state officials, the lawsuit names the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, as federal non-discrimination regulations are also implicated.  As a result, the lawsuit also rests on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As Judge Jonker describes the system, although St. Vincent routinely refers same-sex couples to other agencies for certification, once an individual or couple are certified to be adoptive or foster parents, they may adopt or foster through St. Vincent.  St. Vincent has placed children with same-sex couples, and opens the various supportive services it provides to adoptive and foster families of such couples.  The only issue as to which there is disagreement between St. Vincent and the state, according to their Complaint, is the issue of evaluating the prospective parents and certifying them.

Judge Jonker concluded that in light of these facts, St. Vincent should be entitled to a preliminary injunction while the case is being litigated, with the pressing deadline of September 30 for renewal of their current contract as an adoption service provider looming just days after the injunction was issued.

The first essential test for injunctive relief is whether St. Vincent is likely to be successful in their claim of a constitutional violation.  Finding that this test was met, the judge said that this case is not covered by Supreme Court precedents holding that no religious exemption is required when a challenged law is neutral with respect to religion and is of general applicability, of which the leading case is Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).  Taking account of the historical background to the challenged policy here, the judge found that “the historical background, specific series of events, and statements of Defendant Nessel all point toward religious targeting.”

Reviewing the sequence of events described above, he found that “the 2018 campaign for Michigan Attorney General and General Nessel’s statements create a strong inference that the State’s real target is the religious beliefs and confessions of St. Vincent, and not discriminatory conduct.”  He based this conclusion on St. Vincent’s allegation that it “has never prevented a same-sex couple from fostering or adopting a child.”  If St. Vincent was required to accept applications from same-sex couples and carry out its evaluation, it would be put to the task of stating whether the couple should be certified to be adoptive or foster parents, a determination that it would want to make in accord with its religious principles, which would mean denying the certification.  Instead, St. Vincent makes referrals of such couples to other agencies, knowing that those agencies will certify the couples if they meet the objective criteria specified by state regulations.

Furthermore, he appointed out, under the system in Michigan, children who need an adoptive or foster placement are referred to contracted agencies through the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE) and, he found, “St. Vincent has actually placed children though the MARE system with same-sex adoptive parents.”  Once a prospective couple has been certified, St. Vincent avows, they are treated the same as any other certified couple with regard to all its adoption and fostering placements and services.

“The State is willing to prevent St. Vincent from doing all this in the future simply because St. Vincent adheres to its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is an institution created by God to join a single man to a single woman,” he wrote.  “Because of that religious belief, St. Vincent says it cannot in good conscience review and certify an unmarried or same-sex parental application.  St. Vincent would either have to recommend denial of all such applications, no matter how much value they could provide to foster and adoptive children; or St. Vincent would have to subordinate its religious beliefs to the State-mandated orthodoxy, even though the State is not compensating them for the review services anyway.”  St. Vincent makes referrals of single folks and same-sex couples to other agencies to avoid being put into this quandary.

The court notes that until Attorney General Nessel took office, the state had been defending this practice in the prior litigation, and Nessel’s rhetoric during the campaign convinced the judge that the settlement of the Dumont lawsuit and the agreement to enforce the non-discrimination policy against all contracting agencies showed that the new policy is targeting religion even though it appears neutral on its face.

Judge Jonker determined that this is a “strict scrutiny” case because it targets religious belief, and that under this demanding test, the new policy is likely to be held unconstitutional.  He also found that this case was materially distinguishable from the Philadelphia case decided by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 922 F.3d 140 (2019), because of differences in the facts: the Catholic agency in Philadelphia was refusing to deal with same-sex couples at all, while St. Vincent refers them to other agencies for certification, and once they are certified, will place children with them and provide supportive services.

The court also determined that the balance of harms as between issuing or not issuing the injunction weighed in favor of issuing it, against both the state and the federal government, because of the possibility (remote, it would seem) that the Trump Administration would cut off funds to a state that has passed a law allowing faith-based agencies to abstain from providing some services based on their religious beliefs.  As to the public interest, the court found that it is in the interest of the public not to shut down any adoption or foster care agencies in light of the significant number of children in Michigan that need placements and the supportive services that St. Vincent provides, including to same-sex couples and their adoptive or foster children.

The court rejected the state’s argument that these issues had already been decided in Dumont  in favor of applying the non-discrimination policy to all agencies. The judge pointed out that Dumont was settled by the parties after Nessel changed the state’s position.  There was no judgment on the merits by the court, so there was no final judgment determining the underlying legal issue and no reason to find the issue res judicata.

The court’s use of the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling in rendering this decision is noteworthy.  In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court refrained from ruling on the underlying constitutional question whether a baker has a 1st Amendment right to decline to produce custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples, instead ruling for the baker based on the Court’s detection in the record of overt hostility to religion by some of the members of the Colorado civil rights commission that was deciding that case at the administrative level.  Since then, several lower courts have focused on the Supreme Court’s “hostility to religion” language, and Judge Jonker does in this case, finding that Nessel’s “hostility to religion” expressed during her election campaign feeds into the question whether the state’s current position targets religion, even though the policy is facially neutral, applying the non-discrimination policy to all adoption and foster care services, not just faith-based ones.

Judge Jonkin prefaced his opinion with a careful statement about what was not at issue.  “This case is not about whether same-sex couples can be great parents,” he wrote.  “They can.  No one in the case contests that.  To the contrary, St. Vincent has placed children for adoption with same-sex couples certified by the State.”  To the judge, this case was about whether St. Vincent can continue to operate in a way consistent with the religious creed to which it subscribes, or whether it must violate those religious beliefs if it is to continue providing adoption and foster care services.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty of Washignton D.C. provided legal representation to the plaintiffs and St. Vincent.  Michigan’s Department of the Attorney General represented the state defendants, and the U.S. Justice Department represented the federal defendants.  The plaintiffs in Dumont v. Gordon, Kristy and Dana Dumont, were represented as amici by attorneys from the ACLU and pro bono counsel from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.

Although this was just a ruling on a preliminary injunction, it signals quite clearly that Judge Jonker’s final ruling on the merits is likely to go the same way.  The State could appeal the ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judge Jonker, who is the chief judge for the Western District of Michigan, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to Maryland Law Against Conversion Therapy for Minors

Posted on: September 24th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On September 20, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the federal district court in Maryland granted that state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Liberty Counsel on behalf of a conversion therapy practitioner who was challenging the state’s recently enacted law that provides that “a mental health or child care practitioner may not engage in conversion therapy with an individual who is a minor.” The ban is enforceable  through the professional licensing process enforced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  The named defendants are Governor Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh.  The case is Doyle v. Hogan, 2019 WL 4573382, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160709 (D. Md., Sept. 20, 2019).

The plaintiff, Christopher Doyle, argued that the law violates his right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, seeking a preliminary injunction against the operation of the law while the litigation proceeds.  Having decided to dismiss the case, however, Judge Chasanow also denied the motion for preliminary relief as moot.  Liberty Counsel immediately announced an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has yet to rule on a constitutional challenge against a conversion therapy ban.

Several U.S. Circuit courts have rejected similar challenges.  The New Jersey statute, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, was upheld by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state has the power to regulate “professional speech” as long as there was a rational basis for the regulation.  King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014). The California statute, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, was upheld by the 9th Circuit, which characterized it is a regulation of professional conduct with only an incidental effect on speech, and thus not subject to heightened scrutiny by the court.  Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2015).  Liberty Counsel is also appealing a similar ruling by a federal court in Florida to the 11th Circuit.

The task of protecting statutory bans on conversion therapy against such constitutional challenges was complicated in June 2018 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court in a 5-4 decision involving a California law imposing certain notice requirements on licensed and unlicensed pregnancy-related clinics, wrote disparagingly of the 3rd and 9th Circuit conversion therapy opinions.  National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018). The California statute required the clinics to post notices advising customers about pregnancy-related services, including family planning and abortion, that are available from the state, and also required non-licensed clinics to post notices stating that they were not licensed by the State of California.  The clinics protested that the statute imposed a content-based compelled speech obligation that violated their free speech rights and was subject to “strict scrutiny.” Such speech regulations rarely survive a strict scrutiny constitutional challenge.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reverse a decision by the 9th Circuit, which had ruled that the notices constituted “professional speech” that was not subject to “strict scrutiny.”  In so doing, Justice Thomas rejected the idea that there is a separate category of “professional speech” that the government is free to regulate.  He asserted that “this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’”

“Some Court of Appeals have recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech that is subject to different rules,” Thomas observed, citing among examples the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit conversion therapy cases.  “These courts define ‘professionals’ as individuals who provide personalized services to clients and who are subject to ‘a generally applicable licensing and regulatory regime.’ ‘Professional speech’ is then defined as any speech by these individuals that is based on ‘[their] expert knowledge and judgment,’ or that is ‘within the confines of [the] professional relationship,’” this time quoting from the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit opinions.  “So defined, these courts except professional speech from the rule that content-based regulations of speech are subject to strict scrutiny,” again citing the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases.

After reiterating that the Supreme Court has not recognized a category of “professional speech,” Thomas does concede that there are some circumstances where the court has applied “more deferential review” to “some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech,” and that “States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”  But, the Court concluded, neither of those exceptions applied to the clinic notice statute.

As a result of Justice Thomas’s comments about the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases, when those opinions are examined on legal research databases such as Westlaw or Lexis, there is an editorial indication that they were “abrogated” by the Supreme Court.  Based on that characterization, Liberty Counsel sought to get the 3rd Circuit to “reopen” the New Jersey case, but it refused to do so, and the Supreme Court declined Liberty Counsel’s request to review that decision.

Liberty Counsel and other opponents of bans on conversion therapy have now run with this language from Justice Thomas’s opinion, trying to convince courts in new challenges to conversion therapy bans that when the practitioner claims that the therapy is provided solely through speech, it is subject to strict scrutiny and likely to be held unconstitutional.  The likelihood that a law will be held unconstitutional is a significant factor in whether a court will deny a motion to dismiss a legal challenge or to grant a preliminary injunction against its enforcement.

Liberty Counsel used this argument to attack conversion therapy ordinances passed by the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, both in Florida, but U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg rejected the attempt in a ruling issued on February 13, holding that despite Justice Thomas’s comments, the ordinances were not subject to strict scrutiny and were unlikely to be found unconstitutional. She found that they were covered under the second category that Justice Thomas recognized as being subject to regulation: where the ordinance regulated conduct that had an incidental effect on speech.  Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 353 F. Supp. 3d 1237 (S.D. Fla. 2019).

Liberty Counsel argued against that interpretation in its more recent challenge to the Maryland law.  It argued in its brief, “The government cannot simply relabel the speech of health professionals as ‘conduct’ in order to restrain it with less scrutiny,” and that because Dr. Doyle “primarily uses speech to provide counseling to his minor clients, the act of counseling must be construed as speech for purposes of First Amendment review.”

The problem is drawing a line between speech and conduct, especially where the conduct consists “primarily” of speech.  Judge Chasanow noted that the 4th Circuit has explained, “When a professional asserts that the professional’s First Amendment rights ‘are at stake, the stringency of review slides ‘along a continuum’ from ‘public dialogue’ on one end to ‘regulation of professional conduct’ on the other,” continuing: “Because the state has a strong interest in supervising the ethics and competence of those professions to which it lends its imprimatur, this sliding-scale review applies to traditional occupations, such as medicine or accounting, which are subject to comprehensive state licensing, accreditation, or disciplinary schemes.  More generally, the doctrine may apply where ‘the speaker is providing personalized advice in a private setting to a paying client.’”

And, quoting particularly from the 3rd Circuit New Jersey decision, “Thus, Plaintiff’s free speech claim turns on ‘whether verbal communications become ‘conduct’ when they are used as a vehicle for mental health treatment.”

Judge Chasanow found that the Maryland statute “obviously regulates professionals,” and although it prohibits particular speech “in the process of conducting conversion therapy on minor clients,” it “does not prevent licensed therapists from expressing their views about conversion therapy to the public and to their [clients.]”  That is, they can talk about it, but they can’t do it!  “They remain free to discuss, endorse, criticize, or recommend conversion therapy to their minor clients.”  But, the statute is a regulation of treatment, not of the expression of opinions.  And that is where the conduct/speech line is drawn.

She found “unpersuasive” Liberty Counsel’s arguments that “conversion therapy cannot be characterized as conduct” by comparing it to aversive therapy, which goes beyond speech and clearly involves conduct, usually involving an attempt to condition the client’s sexual response by inducing pain or nausea at the thought of homosexuality.  She pointed out that “conduct is not confined merely to physical action.” The judge focused on the goal of the treatment, reasoning that if the client presents with a goal to change their sexual orientation, Dr. Doyle would “presumably adopt the goal of his client and provide therapeutic services that are inherently not expressive because the speech involved does not seek to communicate [Doyle’s] views.”

She found that under 4th Circuit precedents, the appropriate level of judicial review is “heightened scrutiny,” not “strict scrutiny,” and that the ordinance easily survives heightened scrutiny, because the government’s important interest in protection minors against harmful treatment comes into play, and the legislative record shows plenty of data on the harmful effects of conversion therapy practiced on minors.  She notes references to findings by the American Psychological Association Task Force, the American Psychiatric Association’s official statement on conversion therapy, a position paper from the American School Counselor Association, and articles from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Association of Sexuality Educations, Counselor, and Therapists.  Such a rich legislative record provides strong support to meet the test of showing that the state has an important interest that is substantially advanced by banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

Having reached this conclusion, the judge rejected Liberty Counsel’s argument that the ban was not the least restrictive way of achieving the legislative goal, or that it could be attacked as unduly vague.  It was clear to any conversion therapy practitioner what was being outlawed by the statute, she concluded.

Turning to the religious freedom argument, she found that the statute is “facially neutral” regarding religion.  It prohibits all licensed therapists from providing this therapy “without mention of or regard for their religion,” and Liberty Counsel’s Complaint “failed to provide facts indicating that the ‘object of the statute was to burden practices because of their religious motivation.’”  She concluded that Doyle’s “bare conclusion” that the law “displays hostility toward his religious convictions is not enough, acting alone, to state a claim” that the law violates his free exercise rights.  She also rejected the argument that this was not a generally applicable law because it was aimed only at licensed practitioners.  Like most of the laws that have been passed banning conversion therapy, the Maryland law does not apply to religious counselors who are not licensed health care practitioners.  Because the law is enacted as part of the regulation of the profession of health care, its application to those within the profession is logical and has nothing to do with religion.  As a result, the free exercise claim falls away under the Supreme Court’s long-standing precedent that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with religiously-neutral state laws.

Having dismissed the First Amendment claims, Judge Chasanow declined to address Liberty Counsel’s claims under the Maryland Constitution, since there is no independent basis under the court’s jurisdiction to decide questions of state law.

Joining the Office of the Maryland Attorney General in defending the statute were FreeState Justice, Maryland’s LGBT rights organization, with attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal.  Also, the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher of Washington, D.C., submitted an amicus brief on behalf of The Trevor Project, which is concerned with bolstering the mental health of LGBT youth.

Senior District Judge Chasanow was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.