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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.”

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.

Alliance Defending Freedom Files Constitution Challenge to NYC Law Banning Conversion Therapy

Posted on: January 29th, 2019 by Art Leonard 2 Comments

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on January 23, challenging the constitutionality of New York City’s Local Law 22 of 2018, which prohibits the practice of conversion therapy in the City. The law was a project of the City Council, which enacted it on November 30, 2017. It was returned to the Council unsigned by Mayor Bill De Blasio within thirty days, and became law without his approval on January 5, 2018.  The case is Schwartz v. The City of New York, Case 1:19-cv-00463 (N.Y. Dist. Ct., E.D. N.Y., filed Jan. 23, 2019).

The measure is probably the most broadly-sweeping legislative measure against conversion therapy to be enacted in the United States. State laws on the subject, including the one enacted in January in New York State, limit their bans to provision of such therapy to minors by licensed health care professionals, and designate the offense as professional misconduct that can subject the practitioner to discipline for unprofessional conduct. The City law, by contrast, applies to “any person” who provides such therapy for a fee to any individual, not just minors. The City law imposes civil penalties beginning with $1,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation, and $10,000 for each subsequent violation, which can be imposed by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Its enforcement has been assigned to the Department of Consumer Affairs.

For purposes of this law, “conversion therapy” is defined as “any services, offered or provided to consumers for a fee, that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or seek to change a person’s gender identity to conform to the sex of such individual that was recorded at birth.” The measure does not contain any express exemption for religious counselors or clergy, but presumably if they do not charge a fee for their services they are not subject to this law.

Legal challenges to the various state laws, of which there are now more than a dozen, have so far been unsuccessful, but it is not clear that the sweeping New York City law will benefit from some of the legal doctrines that states have successfully marshalled to defend their laws. Most importantly, the state laws fall comfortably within the traditional state role of regulating the provision of health care by licensed practitioners, and by being restricted to minors, they rest within the state’s traditional function of parens patriae, caring for the welfare of minors, which can mean at times defending minors from the well-meaning but harmful actions of their parents, such as refusing blood transfusions or medication for serious illnesses.

ADF is asking the court to issue a declaration that the law is unconstitutional and to issue an injunction against its enforcement by the City. The law does not authorize individuals to file suit against conversion therapy practitioners, but instead leaves enforcement to an administrative process, triggered by complaints to the Consumer Affairs Department.

ADF has found a seemingly sympathetic plaintiff, Dr. David Schwartz, a “counselor and psychotherapist practicing in New York City who has a general practice but who has regularly had, and currently has, patients who desire counseling that the Counseling Censorship Law prohibits.” The Complaint also describes him as a “licensed clinical social worker” who “resides and practices in Brooklyn.” When this writer first read the Complaint, he was alarmed to think that the New York City Council would title a measure “Counseling Censorship Law,” but upon retrieving a copy of the Local Law 22, saw that the title was an invention of ADF for the purpose of framing its 1st Amendment challenge, as the word “censorship” appears nowhere in the legislation, which does not have an official title.

According to the Complaint, Dr. Schwartz is an Orthodox Jew whose patients come mainly from the Chabad Lubavitch ultra-orthodox community. He avows that he provides counseling and psychotherapy attuned to the needs and desires of that community, and cites the late Lubavitcher Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as an authority supporting the practice of conversion therapy. The description of his practice does not mention child patients, stating: “Dr. Schwartz works only with willing patients – patients who voluntarily walk into his office and talk with him because they want and value his counsel. And Dr. Schwartz does nothing to or with his patients other than listen to them and talk with them.”

Schwartz fears that the City law will be used against him, and the Complaint focuses on the $10,000 civil penalty like a sword of Damocles hanging over his head. ADF was smart to avoid mentioning minors, since it filed this lawsuit during the time between the state legislature’s approval of its conversion therapy ban and its signing into law on January 25 by Governor Cuomo. If Schwartz practices on minors as a licensed psychologist, he will be violating the state law, possibly setting up another lawsuit by ADF.

ADF has positioned this case primarily as a challenge to government censorship of free speech and free exercise of religion. The Complaint insists that the only therapy Schwartz provides is “talk therapy,” eschewing the bizarre and cruel practices that were describe in a New Jersey court a few years go in a case brought by emotionally damaged patients of JONAH, a Jewish conversion therapy organization that was found in that case to be in violation of the New Jersey consumer protection law. ADF has crafted the Schwartz Complaint to distinguish this case from the JONAH case, which involved Jewish parents effectively forcing their teenage children to subject themselves to bizarre “therapeutic” procedures to “change” their sexual orientation.

By contrast, without ever indicating the age range of his patients, the Schwartz Complaint says that he “does not view it as the psychotherapist’s role to rebuke patients or to tell them the direction they ‘ought’ to go.” The Complaint describes a practice in which patients come to Schwartz “with a very wide range of issues. However,” it continues, “his practice regularly includes a few individuals who experience undesired same-sex attractions. In some cases, patients come to Dr. Schwartz seeking his assistance in pursuing their personal goal of reducing their same-sex attractions and developing their sense of sexual attraction to the opposite sex.” Schwartz insists that he “does not attempt to increase opposite-sex attraction or change same-sex attraction in patients who do not desire his assistance in that direction. In working with patients who desire to decrease same-sex attraction or increase their attraction to the opposite sex, Dr. Schwartz never promises that these goals will be achieved.”

The Complaint also insists that “Dr. Schwartz engages in no actions other than talking with the patient, and offering ways of thinking about themselves and others that may help them make progress towards the change they desire. Dr. Schwartz does not use electro-shock therapy, he does not recommend that patients view heterosexual pornography or that they subject themselves to painful or other adverse stimulations in response to undesired sexual thoughts. Dr. Schwartz simply listens to what his patients share with him, and talks to them.” The Complaint concedes that some patients do not achieve the goal, and “some have chosen to stop pursuing it,” but claims that Schwartz has had success with an unspecified number of patients who have “over time” experienced “changes” that “have enabled Dr. Schwartz’s patients to enter into heterosexual marriage that they desired.”

The Complaint recites the traditional arguments put forward by conversion therapy proponents, about how patients who are “strongly motivated to change” can achieve their goal. Interestingly, the Complaint refers repeatedly to “reducing” same-sex attraction without ever asserting that Schwartz claims to have “eliminated” such attraction in his patients. And, of course, proponents shy away from any sort of formal documentation, insisting that patient confidentiality precludes providing concrete examples. It also cites no published scientific authorities supporting the efficacy of talk therapy in changing sexual orientation.

Several paragraphs are devoted to statements attributed to Rabbi Schneerson relating to this subject, without any citation of published sources.

ADF’s legal theory here is that the city’s “Counseling Censorship Law” is a content-based regulation of speech that is “aiming to suppress the dissemination of ideas and information about human sexuality and the human capacity for change in this area” and “does not adopt the least restrictive means to pursue a compelling government interest,” arguing that the government “has no cognizable interest at all – let alone a compelling interest – in preventing citizens from hearing ideas that those citizens with to hear in a counseling relationship.” The Complaint argues that the law both prohibits and compels speech, in the sense that it “effectively requires Dr. Schwartz to tell the patient that no change is possible, which Dr. Schwartz does not believe to be true.”

The Complaint also claims that the law is “unduly vague” in violation of the Due Process Clause, picking apart various phrases and terms and suggesting that their ambiguity make it difficult for a practitioner to know what he can or cannot say to a patient. The Complaint also argues that the law violates the 1st Amendment rights of patients who want to receive talk therapy to change their sexual orientation. And, of course, it focuses at the end on the Free Exercise Clause, arguing that Schwartz “has a right to use his professional skills to assist patients to live in accordance with their shared religious faith, including the religious mandates of the Torah and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other respected Orthodox Jewish authorities based on the Torah. The Counseling Censorship Law purports to be justified, in its legislative history, by a supposed finding that ‘changing’ sexual orientation is impossible. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose teachings inform the core of Dr. Schwartz’s religious convictions, taught exactly the opposite.”

The Complaint argues that because the Council enacted the law knowing that “it was hostile to and targeting practices particularly associated with persons and communities adhering to traditional religious beliefs,” it is “not a neutral law of general applicability,” even though it nowhere mentions religion. This is an attempt to establish that Schwartz’s 1st Amendment claim is not governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding, in Employment Division v. Smith, that individuals do not have a right based on their religious beliefs to be exempted from “neutral” laws of “general applicability.”

Interestingly, all the attorneys listed on the complaint are staff attorneys of ADF based in Scottsdale, Arizona. No member of the New York bar is listed, although a footnote indicates that one of the attorneys, Jeana J. Hallock, will be applying for pro hac vice admission (admission for purposes of this case only) to the bar in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The lead attorney signing the Complaint is Roger G. Brooks. The defendants are The City of New York and Lorelei Salas, the Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, whose department has issued regulations on enforcement of the law, and who is sued only in her official capacity. The New York City Law Department will defend the City and Commissioner Salas in the case, which is likely to attract amicus briefs on both sides of the case.

Discharged Atlanta Fire Chief Strikes Back in Federal Lawsuit

Posted on: December 24th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Kelvin J. Cochran, who was discharged as Chief of the Atlanta, Georgia, Fire and Rescue Department (AFRD) after he self-published a book asserting negative views about homosexuality and same-sex marriage based on his religious beliefs, has struck back at the City and Mayor Kasim Reed with a lawsuit claiming a violation of his constitutional rights.  On December 16, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May issued a ruling dismissing some of Cochran’s claims, but allowing others to go forward.  Cochran v. City of Atlanta, 2015 WL 9244523 (N.D. Ga., Dec. 16, 2015).

Cochran became the Atlanta Fire Chief in 2008.  He left for ten months in 2009 to serve as Administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, D.C., but returned and continued in the Atlanta position until he was suspended as a result of the controversy surrounding his book and ultimately discharged on January 6, 2015.

Cochran, self-described as a devout evangelical Christian and an active member of Atlanta’s Elizabeth Baptist Church, wrote and self-published a book titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?: Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation.”  The book grew out of a men’s Bible study group at his church, and was intended as a guide to men to help them “fulfill God’s purpose for their lives.”  One of those purposes, according to Cochran’s book, is to avoid any sexual activity outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage, expressing the view that homosexual activity and same-sex marriage are immoral and inconsistent with God’s plan.

Cochran consulted the City’s Ethics Officer about whether a city official could write a “non-work-related, faith-based book,” and was told he could do that “so long as the subject matter of the book was not the city government or fire department,” but he did not obtain a written ruling.  He later asked the Ethic Officer if he could identify himself in the book as Atlanta Fire Chief, and she responded in the affirmative.  Cochran placed the book for sale on Amazon.com, and distributed free copies to various individuals, including Mayor Reed, some members of the city council, and various Fire Department employees whom he considered to be Christians (some of whom knew he was writing the book and had requested copies).

A Fire Department employee who saw the book and objected to its statements about sexual morality contacted City Councilmember Alex Wan to complain, which led Wan to initiate discussions at the City’s “upper management” level.  This led to a meeting of top City officials with Mayor Reed.  On November 24, 2014, Cochran received a letter informing him that he was suspended without pay for 30 days while the City determined what to do.  Among other things, the City cited an ordinance prohibiting city officials from engaging in outside employment for pay without written permission from the Ethics office.  At the same time, Mayor Reed went public about disagreeing with Cochran’s views expressed in the book, stating “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community” and disassociating his administration from those views.  Councilmember Wan released a statement to the local newspaper that “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”  Cochran’s suspension and statements by Reed, Wan and other city officials led to extensive media coverage.  On January 6, 2015, Cochran was informed of his discharge.

Atlanta has had local legislation banning sexual orientation discrimination for many years, and has long provided benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.  At the time this controversy arose late in 2014, a federal district court had ruled against the constitutionality of Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage, but the matter was still pending on appeal in the courts.  Atlanta government leaders had openly supported the litigation for marriage equality.  Cochran’s views expressed in the book were apparently out of synch with the views of the City’s elected leadership.  However, Cochran claimed in his federal complaint that he has never been accused of discriminating as Fire Chief on the basis of sexual orientation.

Cochran’s lawsuit poses a classic and recurring policy question: to what extent can a state or local government require public officials to refrain from publicizing their views on controversial public issues when those views conflict with official policies as articulated by politically-accountable officials?  The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of important decisions since first addressing this issue in 1968 in Pickering v. Board of Education.  That case involved a public high school teacher who was discharged after publishing a letter in a local newspaper that was critical of the board of education’s budget proposals (which had been twice rejected by local voters).  The Court held that public employees are protected by First Amendment free speech rights when expressing views on matters of public concern when they are speaking in their capacity as private citizens, but such protection is not absolute: the court must conduct a balancing test weighing the employee’s free speech rights against the employer’s legitimate concerns about being able to carry out governmental functions.  Speech that results in disruption of those functions may lose its constitutional protection.  Subsequent rulings have clarified that when a public employee is speaking in an official capacity, he is speaking for the government and can be disciplined or discharged when his speech contradicts government policy.

Cochran filed a nine-count complaint against the city and Mayor Reed, raising various claims under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  Although Judge May dismissed some of those claims, and ultimately found that Mayor Reed enjoyed qualified immunity from personal liability to Cochran, she concluded that his complaint alleged facts sufficient to maintain several of his 1st Amendment claims as well as one of his 14th Amendment Due Process claims.

Cochran’s complaint leads off with a claim that he was fired in retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.  Judge May determined that Cochran’s speech satisfied the requirement that it be on a matter of public concern and that he was speaking as a private citizen (even though his book’s “About the Author” section identifies him as Atlanta’s Fire Chief), making his claim subject to the Supreme Court’s Pickering balancing test.  The City argued that the AFRD has a “need to secure discipline, mutual respect, trust and particular efficiency among the ranks due to its status as a quasi-military entity different from other public employers,” and thus that Cochran’s “interest in publishing and distributing a book ‘containing moral judgment about certain groups of people that caused at least one AFRD member enough concern to complaint to a City Councilmember'” could not outweigh the City’s interests in securing discipline and efficiency.

However, Judge May pointed out that on a motion to dismiss she is to evaluate the complaint based solely on the plaintiff’s allegations, and Cochran had alleged that his book did not threaten the City’s ability to administer public services and was not likely to do so.  Cochran claimed that the book did not interfere with AFRD internal operations, and that he had not told any AFRD employee that complying with his teachings or even reading his book “was in any way relevant to their status or advancement” within the Department.  Thus, Judge May could not find at this stage in the case as a matter of law “that Defendants’ interests outweigh Plaintiff’s First Amendment freedom of speech interests.  However,” she continued, “the factual development of this case may warrant a different conclusion.”

Cochran’s second count claims unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, focusing particularly on a section of the City Code that requires department heads to obtain prior written approval from the city’s Board of Ethics before “engaging in the provision of services for private interests for remuneration,” which he had not done.  Cochran protested the self-publication of a book did not come within this policy. The City claimed he had no standing to challenge this provision since he had never applied for written permission, but Judge May disagreed, rejecting the City’s motion to dismiss this count on the basis of standing.

Cochran’s third count alleges violation of his religious liberty rights, claiming he was terminated because he expressed his religiously-based viewpoint.  The City’s response was that he failed to allege that his religion compelled him to publish his views while serving as Fire Chief without obtaining prior written approval or to distribute the book to various city employees.  Judge May ruled that such allegations were not necessary to state a religious liberty claim, and that Cochran’s allegations “raise a plausible inference that Plaintiff sincerely held the religious beliefs that he contends were the reason for his firing,” so this claim would not be dismissed.  Similarly, Judge May found that Cochran adequately alleged facts to support his fourth claim, that the city’s action violated his 1st Amendment right to freedom of association “by terminating him for expressing religious beliefs in association with his church.”  However, May found insufficient Cochran’s allegations to support his claim of a violation of the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause, stating that at the hearing on the motion to dismiss “it became clear that although the Complaint contains an Establishment Clause claim, the exact contours of that claim. . . are unclear,” and that it appeared to be duplicative of other claims.  Although May dismissed this claim, she granted leave to Cochran to file an amended claim appropriately raising Establishment Clause issues.

Turning to Cochran’s Equal Protection Claim under the 14th Amendment, May found that Cochran had failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain this claim.  Most significantly, he had failed to identify a “comparator” in order to establish discrimination.  A “comparator” is somebody similarly situated to the Plaintiff who had articulated the opposite point of view without incurring adverse action from the City.  Cochran pointed to Mayor Reed, who had publicly articulated opposition to Cochran’s views, but the judge pointed out that Reed, as the elected chief executive of the city, was not similarly situated to Cochran, an appointed department head.  “As the Mayor,” wrote Judge May, “Reed is Plaintiff’s superior. . .  As the City’s ultimate decision-maker, Reed could not be similarly situated to Plaintiff, who is subject to Reed’s decision-making power.”  She also pointed out that Reed had not “ever tried to publish a book on morality that was approved by the City or even that Reed is from a different religious group from Plaintiff.  At bottom, the Court finds that Reed is too dissimilar to serve as a similarly situated comparator for numerous reasons.”  It was not sufficient for Cochran to allege that “numerous City employees” who were similarly situated to him were treated differently in this regard.  It appears that he is the only appointed City department head who had published a work of this kind.

Judge May dismissed Cochran’s claim that the City’s policy about outside work by city officials that was cited in support of his discharge was unduly vague, pointing out that prior similarly challenges to the policy had been rejected by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is binding on Georgia federal courts.  She also found that the public comments by Mayor Reed in connection with this controversy were not sufficiently personally “stigmatizing” of Cochran to sustain a “liberty interest” claim under the Due Process Clause.  However, she refused to dismiss a procedural due process claim, finding that the ordinances cited by the City in its briefs “do not establish that Plaintiff lacks a property interest in his employment.”  Under the 14th Amendment, the Courts have held that a public employee with a property interest in his job may not be deprived of that job in the absence of fair procedures, which Cochran claims he was not accorded in this case, where the decision to fire him was made unilaterally by the mayor.

As to personal liability by Mayor Reed, the ultimate decision-maker on Cochran’s discharge, Judge May found that it would not necessarily be clear to the Mayor that his actions were unconstitutional while exercising the discretionary function to discharge his Fire Chief, since the ultimate determination of that will rest on the court’s application of the Pickering balancing test.  Depending how that weighing turns out, the City may be held liable, but a municipal official in the position of the Mayor exercising a discretionary function of his office would not unless the outcome was clearly established as a matter of law.  The courts have developed this qualified immunity doctrine to avoid stifling the ability of public officials to exercise discretionary functions in situations where there is not a definite constitutional ban in place.

Ultimately, the question confronting Judge May is whether the Atlanta city administration is required to keep in office an appointed department head who has published views that are out of synch with the City’s policies.  If Cochran were a rank and file employee, he might well win some of his claims.  But as a department head with supervisory authority over a major public safety agency, he will confront significant difficulty in arguing that the elected officials responsible to the voters are constitutionally required to keep him in office, as Judge May intimated in ruling on his first free speech claim.