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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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