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Federal Court Rules That Charlotte (N.C.) Catholic High School Violated Title VII by Discharging Gay Substitute Teacher 

Posted on: September 6th, 2021 by Art Leonard No Comments

In 2014, after federal courts ruled that North Carolina had to allow same-sex couples to marry, Lonnie Billard and his long-time partner Richard Donham decided to marry and Billard posted an exuberant announcement on his Facebook page for his friends only.  He ended that announcement by stating, “If you don’t agree with this. . . keep it to yourself.  You never asked my opinion about your personal life and I am not asking yours.”

Among Billard’s Facebook friends were staff and parents associated with Charlotte Catholic High School, where he had taught as a substitute English teacher since 2012, after a decade as a full-time member of the faculty teaching English and Drama.  His friends did not keep the news to themselves, and the school stopped calling Billard as a substitute.  When he asked why, he was told by the assistant principal that it was because he “announced his intention to marry a person of the same sex.”

Billard had been a very successful teacher at Charlotte Catholic.  He won the Inspirational Educator Award from North Carolina State University in 2011 and the Charlotte Catholic Teacher of the Year Award in 2012.  He had been nominated for that award “every year since its inception,” according to the man who was principal of the school at that time.  He had been associated with the school since 2000, and throughout that time he had been in a “romantic relationship” with Donham, whom he listed on Charlotte Catholic employee contact forms as his “friend” or “housemate,” and who was identified on some forms as living at the same address as Billard.  Donham came to Charlotte Catholic events with Billard, accompanying him on class trips to New York City with the drama students to see musicals, and had even served as a substitute teacher when Billard was teaching English full-time.  Donham also substituted at the Charlotte Diocese’s middle school.  Billard claimed that members of the high school’s administration knew that he was gay, but the current principal and assistant principal both claimed, rather incredibly, that they were not aware of his sexual orientation until his Facebook post in December 2014.

The Catholic Church is outspokenly opposed to same-sex marriage, and Catholic schools, which have employed many lesbians and gay men as teachers, have consistently dismissed those employees, regardless of how they have performed their jobs, upon finding out that they intended to or had married same-sex partners.  The de facto position of the Church sounds like the federal government’s old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay military service.  They were happy to employ qualified gay people as ministers (especially church musicians) and teachers, so long as the employees were quiet about being gay and did not go public on same-sex marriages, which the Church saw as defying Catholic doctrine and setting a bad example for congregants and students.

Billard filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2015, claiming a violation of his rights under Title VII, but at that time the EEOC had not yet issued its ruling that it would investigate and prosecute sexual orientation claims under Title VII’s ban on discrimination because of sex.  Ironically, the EEOC issued such a decision, in the case of gay air traffic controller David Baldwin, in July 2015, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 in the Obergefell case that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry.  Billard’s charge was still pending with the EEOC at that time, but perhaps the school’s religious defenses discouraged the EEOC from pursuing Billard’s case directly, as it decided not to sue Charlotte Catholic High School on his behalf, instead issuing a “Notice of Right to Sue Letter” to him in November 2016.  He obtained representation from the ACLU Foundation and its North Carolina affiliate, which filed suit against the school in January 2017.   On September 3, 2021, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr., of the federal district court in Charlotte, granted summary judgment to Billard and denied summary judgment to the school, finding that Billard had proven a clear violation of Title VII and that none of the defenses argued by the school were valid.

The school argued that it had not fired Billard because is gay, but rather because he supports gay marriage, which the Catholic Church opposes.  The school argued that under the First Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion, it is privileged to discharge teachers who disagree with the Church’s positions.  The school also argued that it was protected from liability by two sections of Title XII that relieve religious institutions, including religious schools, from complying with the statute’s ban on discrimination because of religion.  The school also cited a “church autonomy doctrine” under the First Amendment, which prohibits “excessive government intrusion upon religion” and which includes the so-called “ministerial exception” that the Supreme Court has identified as sheltering religious institutions from any liability for their employment decisions regarding ministers.  The school also cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that this federal statute would prevent the court from holding it liable for discrimination under Title VII.

The school actually disclaimed any contention that Billard comes within the ministerial exception, but to be on the safe side, Judge Cogburn explained why Billard’s duties as a substitute teacher did not come within the scope of that exception, as most recently described by the Supreme Court last year in a Catholic schoolteacher case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.  Despite the Supreme Court’s broad definition of the exception to extend to any religious school teacher who performed any religious functions, the judge concluded that Billard’s charge to lead a prayer at the beginning of each class was too minimal to excuse the School from complying with Title VII in his case.  He was not hired to teach religion.

Judge Cogburn rejected the school’s argument that discharging somebody for announcing his plans to marry a same sex partner was not discriminating against him because of his sex (or sexual orientation), drawing a comparison to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s reasoning in the Bostock decision of 2020.  The judge pointed out that a female teacher who posted an announcement on Facebook that she was marrying a man would not be discharged, but when Billard, a man, posted the announcement that he was marrying a man, he was discharged, so clearly his sex was a reason for his discharge.  Justice Gorsuch had described similar hypothetical situations in explaining the Supreme Court’s conclusion that firing an employee for being gay was inescapably due, in part, to the employee’s sex, and thus prohibited by Title VII, even though members of Congress in 1964 would not have expected such a ruling.  Gorsuch, a “textualist,” takes the view that the words of the statute take priority over the expectation or intentions of the legislators who passed it, and his view won the support of six of the Court’s nine members.

As to the express religious institution exemptions included in Title VII, the court concluded that they were not intended to excuse religions institutions from complying with Title VII’s ban on discrimination because of sex. Rather, they were enacted to allow religious institutions to prefer members of their faith in making employment decisions.  Billard is a Catholic, and the court was unwilling to accept the school’s argument that a provision allowing it to discriminate because of religion also gave it a right to discriminate because of sex if it had a religious reason for doing so.  Under that theory, a religious institution would be free to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex, the other categories prohibited under Title VII, which stretches the religious exception too far and would expose thousands of employees of religious institutions to discriminatory treatment.  Congress has not given religious institutions free reign to discriminate against employees for reasons other than the employees’ religion.

As to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, many federal appeals courts have ruled that it applies only to situations where the government is suing to enforce a federal statute against a religious defendant, but not to lawsuits brought by private individuals.  Although the Supreme Court has yet to rule on this question, and at least one appeals court has disagreed with that conclusion, Judge Cogburn found based on a close reading of the text of RFRA that it was clearly aimed to restricting enforcement actions by the government, and that a court decision in a lawsuit brought by a non-governmental litigant, such as Lonnie Billard, would not be subject to RFRA’s requirement that the government prove it had a compelling interest to enforce a federal law that burdens the defendant’s free exercise of religion. The court itself is not a “party” to a non-governmental lawsuit, and in the absence of a governmental party, the affirmative defense provisions of RFRA have no application.

Several lawsuits are pending around the country in which employees of Catholic institutions who were discharged over the same-sex marriage issue are seeking relief under Title VII.  In many of them, the plaintiffs’ job duties were such as to bring them within the ministerial exception.  Billard’s is the rare case that was not, at least according to Judge Cogburn’s analysis.

Having granted Billard summary judgment on the merits of his claim, Judge Cogburn ordered that the case “Proceed to trial to determine the appropriate relief that should be granted.”  It is likely that to avoid a court order to reinstate Billard as a substitute teacher, the school may offer a substantial financial settlement.  Title VII specifically lists “reinstatement” as a remedy for a wrongful discharge.  If the case doesn’t settle and Judge Cogburn orders reinstatement, the school and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, a co-defendant, are likely to appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Cogburn was appointed to the court by President Barack Obama.  In 2014, he wrote the decision striking down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage, a decision that was upheld by the 4th Circuit and denied review by the Supreme Court, and it was the decision that led Billard and Donham to decide to get married that led to this lawsuit!

Death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Removes a Staunch Advocate of LGBTQ Rights from the Supreme Court

Posted on: September 27th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, age 87, having served on the Supreme Court of the United States since August 10, 1993.  Throughout her tenure on the Court she had been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights, joining all of the pro-LGBTQ rights majorities and dissenting from all of the adverse decisions except for two in which the Court was unanimous.

In 1993, she joined Justice David Souter’s opinion for the Court in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), in which the Court ruled that a transgender inmate who was repeatedly subjected to sexual assault in prison could hold prison officials liable for damages under the 8th Amendment by showing that they knew the inmate faced “a substantial risk of serious harm” and the officials “disregard[ed] that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.”  Although three members of the Court wrote concurring opinions, Justice Ginsburg did not write in this case, then a new member of the Court.

In 1995, Justice Ginsburg joined the unanimous Court in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U.S. 557 (1995), holding that the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade was an expressive association whose organizers had a right to exclude from their parade an organization whose message they did not want to include.  While holding that Massachusetts could not enforce its public accommodations law banning sexual orientation discrimination against the parade organizers, the Court affirmed that it was within the legislative and constitutional authority of the state to generally ban public accommodations from discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Justice Souter wrote for the Court.

In 1996, Justice Ginsburg joined the Court’s opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), holding that Colorado violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by enacting a state constitutional amendment that prohibited the state or any of its subdivisions from protecting “homosexuals” from discrimination.  Justice Kennedy wrote that the state could not treat gay people as “strangers from the law” or categorically single gay people out for exclusion based on animus against homosexuality. The Court’s vote was 6-3, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joining Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion.

Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Scalia’s opinion for the unanimous Court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), which embraced a textualist interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reversing a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that a man who was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment of a sexual nature by male co-workers in an all-male workplace could not bring a hostile work environment sex discrimination claim under that statute.  To the contrary, ruled the Court, nothing in the language of the statute suggested that so-called “same-sex harassment” was not actionable, so long as the plaintiff showed that he was harassed because of his sex.  Justice Scalia memorably wrote that even though “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, … statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”  This mode of interpretation provided a foundation for the Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), the last LGBTQ rights victory in which Justice Ginsburg participated.

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), the Court ruled 5-4 that the Boy Scouts of America enjoyed a 1st Amendment right to exclude gay men from serving as adult leaders of their Boy Scout troops.  Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the Court in an opinion that drew upon Hurley as precedent.  Justice Ginsburg joined two dissenting opinions, one by Justice John Paul Stevens and the other by Justice David Souter.

Justice Ginsburg was part of the 6-3 majority that voted to hold that a Texas law penalizing “homosexual conduct” was unconstitutional as applied to private, consensual adult sexual activity.  Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).  Ginsburg joined the opinion for the Court by Justice Kennedy, which based its ruling on the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which had rejected a Due Process challenge to Georgia’s sodomy law.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concurred in the judgement but would not vote to overrule Bowers (a case in which she had joined the Court’s opinion), rather premising her vote on Equal Protection.  Scalia dissented, in any opinion joined by Rehnquist and Thomas.

In 2006, Justice Ginsburg joined the unanimous opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), rejecting a 1st Amendment claim by a group of law schools and law faculty members that their institutions should have a right to exclude military recruiters because of the Defense Department’s policy excluding gay people, among others, from the service.  Roberts premised the Court’s ruling on Congress’s power under Article I of the Constitution to “raise and support armies,” holding that Congress could constitutionally support this function by denying federal financial assistance to educational institutions that denied military recruiters the same access that they accorded to other recruiters under the so-called Solomon Amendment that Congress regularly attached to Defense appropriations bills.

Justice Ginsburg wrote for the Court in 2010 in Christian Legal Society v.  Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a claim by students of the Christian Legal Society chapter at Hastings Law School that the school’s denial of official status to CLS because of its exclusionary membership policy violated the 1st Amendment.  The Court divided 5-4, with Justices Kennedy and Stevens issuing concurring opinions, from which it was reasonable to infer that Justice Ginsburg assembled her majority by seizing upon a factual stipulation entered at the district court that the school’s policy required that recognized student organizations allow all students to join, even though the wording of the policy prohibited discrimination based on enumerated characteristics, including sexual orientation, which was the “sticking point” with CLS.  Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito angrily charged the court with failing to address the explicit policy that the school had adopted and then relied upon to withdraw recognition from CLS.  He argued that the Court was enabling viewpoint discrimination by the public law school.  Roberts, Scalia and Thomas joined the dissent.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 573 U.S. 682 (2014), dissenting, Justice Ginsburg rejected the Court’s holding that commercial businesses could assert claims to being exempt from coverage requirements of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act as an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  In his opinion for the 5-4 majority, Justice Alito observed (in dicta) that an employer could not rely on religious freedom claims to defend against a race discrimination claim under Title VII.  In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted religious objections to homosexuality by some employers and questioned whether the Court would find that employers would have a right under RFRA statutes (patterned on the federal RFRA) to discriminate on that basis.  She specifically noted the case of Elane Photography v. Willock, in which the New Mexico Supreme Court had rejected a state RFRA defense by a wedding photographer being sued under the state’s public accommodations law, and in which the Supreme Court had recently denied a petition for certiorari, as well as a state law case from Minnesota involving a health club owned by “born-again” Christians who denied membership to gay people in violation of a local anti-discrimination law.

Justice Ginsburg joined opinions for the Court by Justice Kennedy in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), both 5-4 rulings, in which the Court invoked concepts of Due Process and Equal Protection to invalidate Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages recognized by some states at that time), and to strike down state constitutional and statutory provisions denying same-sex couples the right to marry or recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.  (As senior justice in the majority in both cases, Justice Kennedy assigned himself the opinions for the Court.)  As they were 5-4 decisions, Justice Ginsburg’s vote was necessary to the outcome in both cases.  Between the decision in Windsor and the decision in Obergefell, Justice Ginsburg became the first sitting member of the Court to officiate at a same-sex wedding ceremony, an action that led some to call for her recusal in Obergefell.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. 693 (2013), Justice Ginsburg joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion holding that the proponents of California Proposition 8, which had amended the state’s constitution to define marriage solely as the union of a man and a woman, lacked Article III standing to appeal the district court’s decision holding that measure unconstitutional, where the state had declined to appeal that ruling.  The Court’s opinion expressed no view as to the constitutionality of Proposition 8, focusing entirely on the question of standing, but its effect was to allow same-sex couples to resume marrying in California, which they had not been able to do from the effective date of Prop 8’s passage in November 2008.  Of course, Californian same-sex couples who subsequently married, as well as those who had married in the five-month period prior to the passage of Prop 8, benefited from federal recognition of their marriages under U.S. v. Windsor, which was issued by the Court on the same day as Hollingsworth.  Justice Kennedy dissented, in an opinion joined by Thomas, Alito and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

In two subsequent per curiam rulings, Justice Ginsburg, who did not dissent, presumably joined in the Court’s disposition of the cases:

In 2016, the Court ruled per curiam in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), that the courts of one state must accord full faith and credit to an adoption approved by the courts of another state where the court that approved the adoption had general jurisdiction over the subject of adoptions.  The case involved a second-parent adoption by the same-sex partner of the child’s birth mother in Georgia, where they were temporarily residing.  They moved back to Alabama and in a subsequent split-up, the birth mother urged Alabama courts to refuse to recognize the adoption, arguing that had it been appealed, the appellate courts in Georgia would have found it invalid.  There was no dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court per curiam, which asserted the Full Faith and Credit Clause requires state courts to recognize decisions by courts of other states who had jurisdiction to render those decisions under the laws of their states.

In 2017, the Court ruled per curiam in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), that the state of Arkansas’s refusal to apply the spousal presumption to name the wife of a woman who gave birth to a child as a parent of the child on its birth certificate violated the 14th Amendment as construed by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.  In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Alito and Thomas, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the decision in Obergefell did not necessarily decide this case so the Court should have called for merits briefing and oral argument rather than deciding the case based on the cert documents.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018), Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Sotomayor, rejecting the Court’s decision to reverse the Colorado Court of Appeals and the state’s Civil Rights Commission in their ruling that a bakery violated the state’s civil rights law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in the 7-2 ruling was premised on the majority’s conclusion that the baker, who was relying on 1st Amendment free exercise and free speech arguments, had been denied a “neutral forum” for the decision of his case due to hostility to his religious views arguably expressed by two members of the Commission during the hearing process.  Justice Ginsburg observed in dissent that there was no evidence of a lack of neutrality on the part of the Colorado Court of Appeals, and she agreed with that court’s conclusion that application of the public accommodations law to the bakery did not violate the 1st Amendment.  In his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy noted Supreme Court precedent that generally private actors, such as businesses, do not have a 1st Amendment Free Exercise right to fail to comply with the requirements of state laws of general application that do not specifically target religious practices or beliefs.

Finally, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia,140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), noted above, Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court holding that discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation or transgender status is, at least in part, discrimination because of sex and thus actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The vote in this case was 6-3, with dissenting opinions by Justice Alito, joined by Thomas, and by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.  In his dissent, Justice Alito asserted that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion would affect the interpretation of more than 100 provisions of federal law, which he listed in an appendix to his opinion.  The immediate effect of the opinion was to ratify the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had earlier recognized its jurisdiction over such claims, and to extend protection against discrimination on these grounds to employees in the majority of states where state or local laws did not provide such protection, although private sector protection under Title VII is limited to employers with at least 15 employees, thus missing the majority of private sector employers.  This decision, which consolidated appeals from three circuits, presented the Court’s first merits ruling on a transgender rights case since Farmer v. Brennan (1993), noted above, although of course the marriage equality rulings, sub silentio, effectively overruled decisions by several state courts refusing to recognize marriages involving a transgender spouse that were challenged is being invalid “same-sex” marriages.

In her career prior to her Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals service, Justice Ginsburg taught at Rutgers and Columbia Law Schools and was the founder and first director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.  Litigation by that Project under her direction persuaded the Supreme Court in a series of important rulings beginning with Reed v. Reed in 1971 to recognize sex discrimination claims under the Equal Protection Clause, laying the doctrinal foundation for equal protection claims by LGBT litigants in later years.  Although she was seen as a moderate on many issues at the time of her appointment to the Court by President Bill Clinton, she went on to become a leader of the Court’s progressive wing and in the 21st century a frequent and very pointed dissenter as the center of gravity of the Court moved in a more conservative direction with the appointment of justices by George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.

Justice Ginsburg’s death left a Supreme Court vacancy less than two months before national elections for President and Congress.  Senate Republicans, who had blocked consideration of President Barack Obama’s nomination of D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland after Justice Scalia died in February 2016, arguing that a Supreme Court appointment should not be made in a presidential election year, now claimed that this was no bar to approving a replacement because the President and the incumbent Senate majority were of the same party.  President Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 26.  Based on her record, if she is confirmed Judge Barrett would likely move the Court sharply to the right, with a 6-3 Republican-appointed conservative majority for the first time in generations, leading to discussion among Democrats about the possibility of expanding the Court if former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden is elected president and Democrats win a majority in the Senate.  Such a plan would require abolishing the filibuster rule by which a minority in the Senate can block a floor vote on legislation, unless the Republicans retained fewer than 40 seats as a result of the election and thus would be unable to block legislation under the filibuster rule without successfully recruiting some Democrats to join them.  Since the filibuster rule was repealed by a bare majority of the Senate in 2017 in order to confirm Justice Gorsuch in the face of a potential Democratic filibuster, it appeared likely at the time Trump announced his nomination that Judge Barrett will be confirmed, but the timing of a floor vote had not been announced by the end of September.

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Discrimination Because of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Violates Title VII’s Ban on Discrimination Because of Sex

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

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 22 that it will consider appeals next term in three cases presenting the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination because of an individual’s sex, covers claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Because federal courts tend to follow Title VII precedents when interpreting other federal sex discrimination statutes, such as the Fair Housing Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a ruling in these cases could have wider significance than just employment discrimination claims.

The first Petition for certiorari was filed on behalf of Gerald Lynn Bostock, a gay man who claimed he was fired by the Clayton County, Georgia, Juvenile Court System, for which he worked as Child Welfare Services Coordinator, because of his sexual orientation.  Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618 (filed May 25, 2018).  The trial court dismissed his claim, and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, 723 Fed. Appx. 964 (11th Cir., May 10, 2018), petition for en banc review denied, 894 F.3d 1335 (11th Cir., July 18, 2018), reiterating an old circuit precedent from 1979 that Title VII does not forbid discrimination against homosexuals.

The second Petition was filed by Altitude Express, a now-defunct sky-diving company that discharged Donald Zarda, a gay man, who claimed the discharge was at least in part due to his sexual orientation.  Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623 (filed May 29, 2018).  The trial court, applying 2nd Circuit precedents, rejected his Title VII claim, and a jury ruled against him on his New York State Human Rights Law claim.  He appealed to the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately ruled en banc that the trial judge should not have dismissed the Title VII claim, because that law applies to sexual orientation discrimination.  Zarda v. Altitude Express, 883 F.3d 100 (2nd Cir., Feb. 26, 2018). This overruled numerous earlier 2nd Circuit decisions.

The third petition was filed by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, three establishments located in Detroit and its suburbs, which discharged a funeral director, William Anthony Beasley Stephens, when Stephens informed the proprietor, Thomas Rost, about her planned transition.   R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes v EEOC, No. 18-107 (filed July 20, 2018).  Rost stated religious objections to gender transition, claiming protection from liability under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the funeral home under Title VII.  Stephens, who changed her name to Aimee as part of her transition, intervened as a co-plaintiff in the case.  The trial judge found that Title VII had been violated, but that RFRA protected Harris Funeral Homes from liability.  The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the funeral home violated Title VII, but reversed the RFRA ruling, finding that complying with Title VII would not substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion.  EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, 884 F.3d 560 (6th Cir., March 7, 2018).  The 6th Circuit’s ruling reaffirmed its 2004 precedent in Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566, using a gender stereotyping theory, but also pushed forward to hold directly that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In all three cases, the Court has agreed to consider whether Title VII’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” is limited to discrimination against a person because the person is a man or a woman, or whether, as the EEOC has ruled in several federal employment disputes, it extends to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims.

The question whether the Court would consider these cases has been lingering on its docket almost a year, as the petitions in the Bostock and Zarda cases were filed within days of each other last May, and the funeral home’s petition was filed in July.  The Court originally listed the Bostock and Zarda petitions for consideration during its pre-Term “long conference” at the end of September, but then took them off the conference list at the urging of Alliance Defending Freedom, representing the funeral home, which suggested that the Court should wait until briefing on the funeral home was completed and then take up all three cases together.

The Court returned the petitions to its conference list in December, and the cases were listed continuously since the beginning of this year, sparking speculation about why the Court was delaying, including the possibility that it wanted to put off consideration of this package of controversial cases until its next term, beginning in October 2019.  That makes it likely that the cases will not be argued until next winter, with decisions emerging during the heat of the presidential election campaign next spring, as late as the end of June.

Title VII was adopted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and went into effect in July 1965.  “Sex” was added as a forbidden ground of discrimination in employment in a floor amendment shortly before House passage of the bill.  The EEOC, originally charged with receiving and investigating employment discrimination charges and attempting to conciliate between the parties, quickly determined that it had no jurisdiction over complaints charging sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and federal courts uniformly agreed with the EEOC.

The courts’ attitude began to change after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that evidence of sex stereotyping by employers could support a sex discrimination charge under Title VII in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (plurality opinion by Justice William J. Brennan), and in 1998 in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia), the Court suggested that Title VII could apply to a “same-sex harassment” case.   Justice Scalia stated that Title VII’s application was not limited to the concerns of the legislators who voted for it, but would extend to “comparable evils.”

These two rulings were part of a series of cases in which the Supreme Court took an increasingly flexible approach to interpreting discrimination “because of sex,” which in turn led lower federal courts earlier in this century to reconsider their earlier rulings in LGBT discrimination cases.  Federal appeals court rulings finding protection for transgender plaintiffs relied on Price Waterhouse’s sex stereotyping analysis, eventually leading the EEOC to rule in 2012 that a transgender applicant for a federal job, Mia Macy, could bring a Title VII claim against the federal employer.  Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995. In 2015, the EEOC extended that analysis to a claim brought by a gay air traffic controller, David Baldwin, against the U.S. Transportation Department, Baldwin v. Foxx, 2015 WL 4397641, and the EEOC has followed up these rulings by filing discrimination claims in federal court on behalf of LGBT plaintiffs and appearing as amicus curiae in such cases as Zarda v. Altitude Express.

In the Harris Funeral Homes case, the 6th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to go beyond the sex stereotype theory for gender identity discrimination claims, agreeing with the EEOC that discrimination because of gender identity is always discrimination because of sex, as it involves the employer taking account of the sex of the individual in making a personnel decision.  The EEOC’s argument along the same lines for sexual orientation discrimination was adopted by the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. en banc), a case that the losing employer did not appeal to the Supreme Court.  In 2018, the 2nd Circuit endorsed the EEOC’s view in the Zarda case.

During the oral argument of Zarda in the 2nd Circuit, the judges expressed some amusement and confusion when an attorney for the EEOC argued in support of Zarda’s claim, and an attorney for the Justice Department argued in opposition.  When the case was argued in September 2017, the EEOC still had a majority of commissioners appointed by President Obama who continued to support the Baldwin decision, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the position on behalf of the Justice Department that federal sex discrimination laws do not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims.

Due to the Trump Administration’s failure to fill vacancies on the EEOC, the Commission currently lacks a quorum and cannot decide new cases.  Thus, the Solicitor General’s response for the government to Harris Funeral Home’s petition for review did not really present the position of the Commission, although the Solicitor General urged the Court to take up the sexual orientation cases and defer deciding the gender identity case.  Perhaps this was a strategic recognition that unless the Court was going to back away from or narrow the Price Waterhouse ruling on sex stereotyping, it was more likely to uphold the 6th Circuit’s gender identity ruling than the 2nd Circuit’s sexual orientation ruling in Zarda, since the role of sex stereotyping in a gender identity case seems more intuitively obvious to federal judges, at least as reflected in many district and appeals court decisions in recent years.

The Court sometimes tips its hand a bit when granting certiorari by reframing the questions posed by the Petitioner.  It did not do this regarding sexual orientation, merely stating that it would consolidate the two cases and allot one hour for oral argument.  Further instructions will undoubtedly come from the Court about how many attorneys will be allotted argument time, and whether the Solicitor General or the EEOC will argue on the sexual orientation issue as amicus curiae.

The Court was more informative as to Harris Funeral Homes, slightly rephrasing the question presented in the Petition.  The Court said that the Petition “is granted limited to the following question: Whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their status as transgender or (2) sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.”  One wonders why the Supreme Court used the phrase “status as transgender” rather than “gender identity” in describing the first part of the question, since “gender identity” fits more neatly into the terminology of Title VII than a reference to “status.”

None of the members of the Court have addressed the questions presented in these three cases during their judicial careers up to this point, so venturing predictions about how these cases will be decided is difficult lacking pertinent information.  The four most recent appointees to the Court with substantial federal judicial careers prior to their Supreme Court appointment – Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh – have never written a published opinion on sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and neither did Chief Justice John Roberts during his brief service on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  However, it seems predictable that the justices most committed to construing civil rights laws narrowly in the context of the time when they were adopted will be skeptical about the argument that the 1964 statute can be interpreted to extend to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

The counsel of record for Bostock is Brian J. Sutherland of Buckley Beal LLP, Atlanta.  Clayton County, Georgia, retained Jack R. Hancock of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP, of Forest Park, Georgia, to submit its response to the Bostock Petition.  Counsel of record for Altitude Express is Saul D. Zabell of Bohemia, New York.  The brief in opposition was filed on behalf of the Zarda Estate by Gregory Antollino of New York City.  Zabell and Antollino were both trial counsel in the case and have pursued it through the appellate process.  Several attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, the Scottsdale, Arizona, based conservative religious liberty litigation group, represent Harris Funeral Home, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco’s office represents the EEOC.   John A. Knight of the ACLU Foundation, Chicago, is counsel of record for Aimee Stephens.  It is not unusual when the Supreme Court grants review for private parties to seek out experienced Supreme Court advocates to present their arguments to the Court, so some of these attorneys listed on the Petitions and other Briefs will likely not be appearing before the Court when the cases are argued next winter.

 

 

 

 

Florida Federal Judge Refuses to Enjoin Anti-Conversion Therapy Ordinances

Posted on: February 14th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On February 13, U.S. District Judge Robin L. Rosenberg denied a motion by two Palm Beach County psychologists to block enforcement of the county’s ordinance forbidding licensed health care practitioners from providing “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE, alsocommonly referred to as “conversion therapy”) to minors.  The refusal of a preliminary injunction extends as well to a similar ordinance enacted by the city of Boca Raton, which is in Palm Beach County.  Judge Rosenberg concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show that they were likely to prevail on their argument that the measures violate their First Amendment free speech rights.  Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 2019 WL 588645, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23363 (S.D. Fla.).

Judge Rosenberg appears to be the first district judge to take on recent Supreme Court rulings that might make it more difficult for governments to defend these laws against constitutional attacks.  Just weeks ago, a federal magistrate judge in Tampa recommended to the district court there to grant a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Tampa’s ordinance against conversion therapy practitioners in that city while the litigation proceeds. The district court has not yet ruled on that recommendation, and Judge Rosenberg’s extensive and detailed opinion may influence the other district judge to reject the magistrate’s recommendation.

Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone’s recommendation in the Tampa case was based heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling, in National Instituyte of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S.Ct. 2361 (2018), that a California statute requiring clinics in that state to advise clients about the availability of state-financed abortion services violated the clinics’ First Amendment rights.  In the course of that opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court, specifically rejected assertions by two federal appeals courts that “professional speech” is entitled to less constitutional protection than other speech, in cases involving challenges to laws against conversion therapy.

Judge Sansone construed the Supreme Court’s ruling to require using the “strict scrutiny” test to evaluate the Tampa ordinance, and concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the ordinance would not survive strict scrutiny, at least regarding the consensual “talk therapy” that the plaintiffs claimed to be providing to their patients.

Without explicitly mentioning Magistrate Sansone’s analysis, Judge Rosenberg rejected it, concluding that the question of the level of judicial review to be provided to these ordinances is “unsettled” at best, and that the cases that Sansone cited and relied upon do not necessarily lead to the conclusion she reached.

Instead, finding that the appropriate level of review of a ban on talk therapy to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation (or gender identity, for that matter) is “unsettled,” Judge Rosenberg decided to analyze the issue using the three different levels of judicial review of a statute, always keeping in mind that in requesting a preliminary injunction to block a duly-enacted statute while its constitutionality is being litigated, the plaintiffs have a heavy burden to show a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits of their claim.

Using the least demanding level of review, “rational basis,” Judge Rosenberg easily rejected the contention that the city or county were acting irrationally or without any justification in passing the ordinances.  She devoted a substantial part of her opinion to summarizing the evidence that was presented to persuade the county and city legislators that they should pass these laws, concluding that a substantial body of professional opinion unanimously rejects the use of conversion therapy, especially on minors, both because of the lack of evidence that talk therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation, and the mounting evidence of its harmful effects.  Furthermore, she noted, minors are not really capable of giving informed consent and are particularly vulnerable to the psychological harm associated with conversion therapy.

Turning to the next level of scrutiny, which has been applied by other courts in evaluating free speech claims against such laws, “heightened scrutiny,” she found that the legislative record here would back up the defendant’s claims of important governmental interests in protecting minors that are advanced by passing these laws.

Turning to the most demanding level of review, “strict scrutiny,” Judge Rosenberg noted that generally content-based governmental actions to restrict speech are subject to this standard, putting the burden on the government to show that it has a compelling interest at stake and that the measure is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessarily abridging free speech.  Narrow tailoring means that the governmental body has to have considered whether a narrower prohibition (the “least restrictive alternative”) would suffice to achieve its compelling goal.

Key to her analysis here is that the defendants met the compelling interest test, because protecting minors is an important role for government, especially when it is necessary to protect them from what may be well-meaning but ultimately harmful decisions by their parents.  The issue which she deemed less conclusive was the narrow tailoring part.  The plaintiffs suggested, as plaintiffs had successfully argued to the Tampa magistrate judge, that a ban on aversion therapy or non-consensual therapy would suffice.  Rosenberg cited reasons for doubting this, including the evidence that talk therapy itself may have harmful effects, as well as her reservations, noted above, about whether such therapy practiced on minors is really consensual.

The bottom line for Rosenberg, however, was that the plaintiffs did not meet the bar of showing that strict scrutiny was definitely the appropriate test to apply, or that they had a substantial likelihood of proving at trial that the measures were insufficiently narrowly-tailored.  As a result, they were not entitled to the preliminary injunction.  She reached a similar conclusion analyzing plaintiffs’ claim that the ordinances are an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech or unduly vague.

Most importantly, she took great pains to explain why the Supreme Court’s ruling in the California clinics case does not necessarily mandate that strict scrutiny should be the standard in this case.  For one thing, she pointed out, that case did not involve regulating speech that was part of treatment, while in this case, the speech is a tool in the process of providing treatment, and state and local governments have traditionally regulated treatments offered by licensed professionals.  The California case involved requiring clinics to provide information that they did not want to be compelled to provide, which is a different story entirely.  “There,” she wrote, “the doctors were compelled to speak, despite the fact that the required notice ‘is not an informed-consent requirement or tied to a procedure at all.’”

She also noted that Justice Thomas’s opinion did not even specify what the level of judicial review should be in that case.  She pointed to the Supreme Court’s earlier case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), in which the Court considered a state law requiring that doctors make certain “factual disclosures” to patients seeking abortions in an attempt to dissuade them.  In that case, the Court’s opinion said that “the physician’s First Amendment rights” were only “implicated as part of the practice of medicine, subject to reasonable licensing and regulation by the state.”  This suggests that the rational basis test might apply, or at most heightened scrutiny.

Because she concluded that at this preliminary stage it was possible to conclude that plaintiffs had not shown a substantial likelihood of winning under any of the potentially applicable standards of review, Judge Rosenberg denied the preliminary injunction, leaving to a later stage in the litigation a more definite ruling on the appropriate level of review and the ultimate merits of the case.  This means that the performance of conversion therapy on minors in Palm Beach County and the city of Boca Raton will continue to be illegal for licensed health care practitioners while the litigation proceeds.

Plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel, the anti-LGBT legal organization that also represents the psychologists attacking the Tampa ordinance, as well as psychologists in New Jersey who have petitioned the Supreme Court to revive their 1st Amendment challenge to that state’s ban on conversion therapy for minors.

Supreme Court Sets Aside Colorado Commission Ruling in Wedding Cake Case, Condemning Government Hostility to Religion

Posted on: June 4th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

The United States Supreme Court ruled on June 4 that overt hostility to religion had tainted the decision process in the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled that baker Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop had unlawfully discriminated against Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins in 2012 by refusing to make them a wedding cake.  Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy reaffirmed the right of the states to ban discrimination because of sexual orientation by businesses that sell goods and services to the public, but insisted that those charged with discrimination are entitled to a respectful consideration of their religious beliefs when charges against them are being adjudicated.  Five other members of the Court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch – joined Kennedy’s opinion.  Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3386, 2018 WL 2465172.

Kennedy found that the particular circumstances of this case fell short of the requirement that government be neutral in matters of religion.  During the oral argument of the case in December, he had signaled this concern, making a troubling observation during the argument by Colorado’s Solicitor General, Frederick Yarger, who was defending the state court’s decision against the baker.  Kennedy said, “Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society.  And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.  It seems to me that the State in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.”  In his opinion for the Court, Kennedy, noting comments made at the public hearing in this case by two of the state Commissioners, said, “The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here, however.  The Civil Rights commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

At the first public hearing, wrote Kennedy, “One commissioner suggested that Phillips can believe ‘what he wants to believe,’ but cannot act on his religious beliefs ‘if he decides to do business in the state.’”  This commissioner also said, “If a businessman want to do business in the state and he’s got an issue with the – the law’s impacting his personal belief system, he needs to look at being able to compromise.”  At the second hearing, a different commissioner spoke disparagingly about how “freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.  And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”  Kennedy found these remarks to constitute disparagement of religion by commissioners who were supposed to be neutral when acting for the government in deciding a case. He emphasized that the record of the hearings “shows no objection to these comments from other commissioners” and that the state court of appeals ruling affirming the Commission’s decision did not mention these remarks.

Kennedy also noted that as of 2012, Colorado neither allowed nor recognized same-sex marriages, so Phillips could “reasonably believe” that he could refuse to make a cake for such a purpose. The factual record suggests that Phillips cited the state ban on same-sex marriage as a reason for his refusal, in addition to his own religious beliefs.

Kennedy invoked a 1993 decision by the Supreme Court, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, in which the Court held that overtly anti-religious bias by a legislative body that had enacted a ban on ritual slaughter of chickens directly aimed at the practices of a minority religious sect violated the Free Exercise Clause.  Even though the statute, on its face, was neutral with respect to religion, and thus would normally be enforceable against anyone who engaged in the prohibited practice regardless of their religious or other motivation, the Court found that the openly articulated anti-religious sentiments of the legislative proponents had undercut the requirement of government neutrality with respect to religious practices.  The only reason the municipality had passed the ordinance was to forbid ritual slaughter of chickens by members of this particular religious sect.  Thus, it was not a neutral law, since it specifically targeted a particular religion’s practice.  Similarly, in this case, Kennedy said, evidence of hostility to religion by the Commission members tainted the decisional process.

Kennedy observed that when the Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry, it had also noted that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”  At the time, dissenting Justices Alito and Antonin Scalia had emphasized the inevitable clashes that might occur in future as those with religious objections confronted the reality of same-sex marriages, and Scalia – as was his usual practice in dissents from Kennedy’s opinions in gay rights cases – ridiculed Kennedy’s statements as falling short of dealing with the clashes that were sure to occur.  In this opinion, Kennedy develops the Obergefell dictum about religious objections further, but does not suggest that religious objectors enjoy a broad exemption from complying with public accommodations laws.

Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Breyer, generally joining the Court’s reasoning but disavowing Kennedy’s reliance on evidence from a stunt conceived by William Jack, a religious opponent of same-sex marriage who filed an amicus brief in the case. Upon hearing about the Masterpiece Cakeshop discrimination charge, Mr. Jack had approached three other Colorado bakers, asking them to make a cake decorated with pictures and Biblical quotations derogatory of same-sex marriage and gay people, and all three bakers refused his request because they found the desired product to be offensive.  Jack filed charges of religious discrimination against them, but the Colorado commission rejected his charges, finding that the bakers had a right to refuse to make cakes conveying messages they found offensive.  Jack then argued – persuasively, in the view of Kennedy, Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch – that the Commission’s different treatment of the charges against the other bakers as compared to its treatment of Jack Phillips showed the Commission’s hostility to religious beliefs.  Justice Clarence Thomas, whose separate concurring opinion was joined only by Gorsuch, also found Jack’s arguments persuasive.

Kagan’s concurring opinion argued that the other baker cases were distinguishable. She pointed out that Jack had asked the bakers to make a cake that they would have refused to make for any customer, regardless of their religion or sexual orientation.  By contrast, Phillips refused to make a wedding cake that he would happily have sold to different-sex couples but refused to sell to same-sex couples.  In the former case, there is no discrimination on grounds prohibited by the Colorado statute.  Gorsuch, in his separate concurrence (with which Justice Alito joined), insisted that the three bakers were discriminating against Jack based on his religious beliefs, and insisted on distinguishing between a cake to “celebrate a same-sex marriage” and a generic “wedding cake.”

Interestingly, the Court’s opinion focused on free exercise of religion and evaded ruling on the other main argument advanced by Jack Phillips: that requiring him to bake the cake would be a form of compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment freedom of speech clause.  The Trump Administration had come into the case in support of Phillips’ appeal, but limited its argument to the free speech contention, which Gorsuch and Thomas also embraced in their concurring opinions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  She minimized the significance of the statements by the two Colorado commissioners.  “Whatever one may think of the statements in historical context,” she wrote, “I see no reason why the comments of one or two Commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins.  The proceedings involved several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.  First, the Division had to find probable cause that Phillips violated [the statute].  Second, the [Administrative Law Judge] entertained the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.  Third, the Commission heard Phillips’ appeal.  Fourth, after the Commission’s ruling, the Colorado Court of Appeals considered the case de novo.  What prejudice infected the determinations of the adjudicators in the case before and after the Commission?  The Court does not say.  Phillips’ case is thus far removed from the only precedent upon which the Court relies, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, where the government action that violated a principle of religious neutrality implicated a sole decisionmaking body, the city council.”

Ginsburg focused her dissent on a series of statements from Kennedy’s opinion which make clear that the Court’s ruling does not endorse some sort of broad exemption for religious from complying with anti-discrimination laws, including the following:  “It is a general rule that [religious and philosophical] objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”  “Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public.”  “Purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons [may not] put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages.’”  Gay persons may be spared from “indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”  She pointed out that all of these statements “point in the opposite direction” from the Court’s conclusion that Phillips should win his appeal.

The narrowness, and possibly limited precedential weight of the Court’s opinion were well expressed by Kennedy, when he wrote, “the delicate question of when the free exercise of [Phillips’] religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach.  That requirement, however, was not met here.  When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.”  Taking together the date of the incident (2012), the inconsistency Kennedy saw with the Commission’s treatment of the bakers who turned down Jack’s order for the gay-disparaging cakes, and the comments by the commissioners at the hearing, Kennedy wrote, “it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause, and its order must be set aside.”  Justice Kagan agreed that in this case the State’s decision was “infected by religious hostility or bias,” although she (and Breyer) disagreed that the Commission’s treatment of Jack’s complaint against the three bakers supported this conclusion, finding that situation distinguishable.

Gorsuch and Thomas would have gone beyond the Court’s opinion to find a violation of Phillips’ freedom of speech as well.  Kennedy wrote, “The free speech aspect of this case is difficult, for few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise of protected speech. This is an instructive example, however, of the proposition that the application of constitutional freedoms in new contexts can deepen our understanding of their meaning.”  But he took this issue no further, instead focusing on the hostility to religion he found reflected in the Colorado commission record.  Thus, the Court’s holding is narrowly focused on the requirement of neutrality toward religion by government actors.  Gorsuch and Thomas, by contrast, found the compelled-speech argument compelling.

The next shoe to drop on the possible significance of this ruling may come quickly.  Also on June 4, the Court listed for conference distribution the petition and responses filed with the Court in State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., 187 Wash.2d 804, 389 P.3d 543 (Wash., February 16, 2017), petition for certiorari filed, July 21, 2017, for discussion at its June 7 conference, the results of which will probably be announced on June 11.  Arlene’s Flowers refused to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding, and was found by the state civil rights agency and the Washington state courts to be in violation of the public accommodations statute.  Arlene’s petition was filed last summer, but no action was taken by the Court pending a decision of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.  If the Court denies the petition, that would reinforce the view that the Masterpiece ruling is narrowly focused on the evidence of “hostility to religion” by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and that absent similar evidence in the Washington state adjudication record, the Court is willing to leave the Washington Supreme Court ruling against Arlene’s Flowers in place.  However, the Court might grant the petition and remand the case to the Washington Supreme Court for reconsideration in light of Masterpiece.  This could respond to Justice Kennedy’s observation that the Colorado Court of Appeals decision did not even mention the commissioner remarks that aroused Justice Kennedy’s ire at oral argument and that were a significant factor in the Supreme Court’s decision.  A remand to the Washington court could implicitly direct that court to examine the adjudication record for any signs of hostility to religion at any stage in that proceeding.

Interestingly, the Oregon Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in a similar wedding cake case, Klein d/b/a Sweetcakes by Melissa v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 410 P.3d 1051 (Court of Appeals of Oregon, December 28, 2017), appeal pending before the Oregon Supreme Court (argued in May, 2018).  A ruling by the Oregon court could provide the first sign of how lower courts will interpret Masterpiece Cakeshop, depending whether the Oregon adjudication record shows signs of hostility to religion.  Interestingly, this case was instigated not by the same-sex couple who were denied service but rather by the state’s attorney general, reacting to press reports about the denial.

It is occasionally difficult when the Supreme Court issues a ruling in a controversial case to determine exactly what the ruling means for future cases.  Ultimately, the meaning of a case as precedent will depend on the factual context of subsequent cases, and on which statements by the justices are seized upon by lower court judges to support their conclusion about how the later cases should be decided.  Kennedy’s own words suggest that these analyses will necessarily be heavily influenced by the facts of those cases.  As he wrote in conclusion: “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

At the oral argument, Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop were represented by Kristen K. Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom, the Scottsdale, Arizona, based religious advocacy firm whose donors are funding this appeal. Donald Trump’s appointee as Solicitor General, Noel J. Francisco, made his first appearance before the Court in this capacity to argue the Administration’s freedom of speech position.  As noted above, Colorado Solicitor General Frederick R. Yarger appeared in support of the Commission’s ruling, and David D. Cole, an ACLU attorney, argued on behalf of Craig and Mullins.

I did an interview on NYC-based radio station WBAI on Monday, June 11, focused mainly on discussing this case.  Here’s the link:

 

https://archive.org/details/ProfArthurLeonardSeg61118MGH

 

 

 

 

5th Circuit Tosses Challenge to Mississippi HB 1523 on Standing Grounds

Posted on: June 24th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Houston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dissolved a preliminary injunction and dismissed two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of H.B. 1523, a Mississippi law enacted last year intended to assure that people who hold anti-gay or anti-transgender views cannot be subject to any adverse action from their state or local governments.  Barber v. Bryant, 2017 Westlaw 2702075, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 11116 (June 22, 2017).

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, finding that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the law violated their equal protection rights as well as the constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion, issued a preliminary injunction last June 30, so the law, which was to become effective last July 1, has not gone into effect. Ruling on June 22, the panel found that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring this challenge to the law because, in the court’s opinion, none had suffered an individualized injury that would give them the right to challenge the law.

The court was careful to state that because it did not have jurisdiction over the case, it was not expressing an opinion about whether the law was constitutional.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the two cases announced that they would seek “en banc” review by the full 5th Circuit bench and, failing that, would petition the Supreme Court.  The 5th Circuit is a notably conservative bench, however, with only four of the fourteen active judges having been appointed by Democratic presidents.  The three-judge panel that issued this decision consisted entirely of Republican appointees.

Section 2 of the law identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and states that people who act in accord with those beliefs or convictions are protected from “discriminatory” action by the state, such as adverse tax rulings, benefit eligibility, employment decisions, imposition of fines or denial of occupational licenses.  The “religious beliefs or moral convictions” are as follows:  “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

The statute provides further that people who claim to have suffered some adverse action because they act on these beliefs have a right to sue state officials, and to use this law as a defense if they are sued by individuals.

Making its effect more concrete, the statute specifically protects religious organizations that want to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, child placement, and marriages, and protects parents who decide to “raise their foster or adoptive children in accordance” with one of the three listed beliefs. Businesses that provide wedding services are protected against liability for denying such services to LGBTQ people, as are medical and mental health care providers, except for emergency medical situations.  For example, a health care provider cannot interfere with visitation with a patient by their designated representative (who may be a same-sex partner or spouse).  State agencies that license professionals may not refuse to license somebody because they hold or articulate one of the listed beliefs.

The statute also specifically protects “any entity that establishes sex-specific standards for facilities such as locker rooms or restrooms,” and protects state employees who want to voice their beliefs as listed in the statute.  It also specifically allows county clerks and judges to refuse to deal with same-sex couples seeking to marry, so long as arrangements are made to allow such marriages to take place without delay.

To sum up, the statute clearly sought to exempt religious organizations and individuals from having to treat LGBTQ people as equal with everybody else, providing “special rights” to discriminate against LGBTQ people and same-sex couples.  Ironically, because Mississippi law does nothing to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people, many of the applications of this statute are more symbolic than real, at least as far as state law goes.  A Mississippi landlord incurs no state law penalty for refusing to rent a dwelling place to a same-sex couple, for example, and businesses in Mississippi are free to deny goods or services to people who are gay or transgender without incurring any state law penalty.  Few local governments in Mississippi have adopted laws that would be affected, although some educational institutions would clearly be affected, especially by the facilities access provision.

The problem for the plaintiffs, in the eyes of the court of appeals, was that the judges could not see that any of the plaintiffs have the kind of particularized injury to give them standing to sue the state in federal court when this law had not even begun to operate.  The plaintiffs had relied heavily on the argument that the law imposed a stigma, signaling second-class citizenship, and sought to enshrine by statute particular religious views, but the court rejected these arguments as insufficient.

The plaintiffs pointed to cases in which courts had ruled that plaintiffs offended by government-sponsored religious displays had been allowed to challenge them under the 1st Amendment in federal court, but Judge Jerry E. Smith, writing for the panel, rejected this analogy.  The court also rejected taxpayer standing, finding that H.B. 1523 did not authorize expenditures in support of religion.  The court found that by protecting both “religious beliefs and moral convictions,” the legislature had avoided privileging religion, since persons whose anti-gay beliefs were not religiously motivated would be protected from adverse government treatment under this act.  An atheist who believes same-sex marriage is wrong or that sex is immutable would be protected, even if these beliefs had no religious basis.

One plaintiff who based his standing on his intention to marry in the future was rejected by the court, which pointed out that he did not specify when or where he intended to marry.  “He does not allege that he was seeking wedding-related services from a business that would deny him or that he was seeking a marriage license or solemnization from a clerk or judge who would refuse to be involved in such a ceremony, or even that he intended to get married in Mississippi,” wrote Judge Smith.

The court made clear that if anybody actually suffers a concrete injury after the law goes into effect, they could file a new lawsuit and raise their challenge.

 

Federal Court Blocks Implementation Mississippi HB 1523

Posted on: July 1st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

 Just minutes before Mississippi’s anti-LGBT H.B. 1523 was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves filed a 60-page opinion explaining why he was granting a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs in two cases challenging the measure, which he consolidated for this purpose under the name of Barber v. Bryant.

 

                According to Judge Reeves, H.B. 1523 violates both the 1st Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  His lengthy, scholarly opinion expands upon some of the points he made just days earlier when he granted a preliminary injunction in a separate lawsuit, blocking implementation of one provision of H.B. 1523 that allowed local officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses to “recuse” themselves from issuing licenses to same-sex couples based on their “sincere” religious beliefs.

 

                Unlike the earlier ruling, the June 30 opinion treats H.B. 1523 as broadly unconstitutional on its face.  Although Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the lead defendant in all three lawsuits, announced that the state would immediately appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Reeves’ scholarly opinion seemed likely to withstand judicial review.  Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only Democratic statewide elected official and also a named defendant, suggested that he might not be joining in such an appeal, voicing agreement with Reeves’ decision and suggesting that the legislature had “duped” the public by passing an unnecessary bill.  He pointed out that the 1st Amendment already protected clergy from any adverse consequences of refusing to perform same-sex marriages, and that the state’s previously-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act already provides substantial protection for the free exercise rights of Mississippians.

 

                At the heart of H.B. 1523 is its Section 2, which spells out three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” that are entitled, as found by Judge Reeves, to “special legal protection.”  These are “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.”  According to the statute, any person or entity that holds one or more of these beliefs is entitled to be free from any sanction by the government for acting upon them by, for example, denying restroom access to a transgender person or refusing to provide goods or services to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

 

                Of course, the state may not override federal rights and protections, and the plaintiffs argue in these cases that by privileging people whose religious beliefs contradict the federal constitutional and statutory rights of LGBT people, the state of Mississippi has violated its obligation under the 1st Amendment to preserve strict neutrality concerning religion and its obligation under the 14th amendment to afford “equal protection of the law” to LGBT people.

 

                Reeves, who ruled in 2014 that Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, agreed with the plaintiffs as to all of their arguments.   For purposes of granting a preliminary injunction, he did not have to reach an ultimate decision on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.  It would suffice to show that they are “likely” to prevail on the merits.  But anybody reading Reeves’ strongly-worded opinion would have little doubt about his view of the merits.

 

                In an introductory portion of the opinion, he spells out his conclusions succinctly: “The Establishment Clause is violated because persons who hold contrary religious beliefs are unprotected – the State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others.  Showing such favor tells ‘nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” quoting from a Supreme Court decision from 2000, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290.  “And the Equal Protection Clause is violated by H.B. 1523’s authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”

 

                Much of the opinion was devoted to rejecting the state’s arguments that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuits, that the defendants were not liable to suit on these claims, and that injunctive relief was unnecessary because nobody had been injured by the law.  Reeves cut through these arguments with ease.  A major Supreme Court precedent backing up his decision on these points is Romer v. Evans, the 1996 case in which LGBT rights groups won a preliminary injunction against Colorado government officials to prevent Amendment 2 from going into effect.  Amendment 2 was a ballot initiative passed by Colorado voters in 1992 that prevented the state from providing any protection against discrimination for gay people.  The state courts found that the LGBT rights groups could challenge its constitutionality, and it never did go into effect, because the Supreme Court ultimately found that it violated the Equal Protection Clause.

 

                Judge Reeves ended his introductory section with a quote from the Romer v. Evans opinion:  “It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort.”

 

                In his earlier opinion, dealing with the clerk “recusal” provision, Reeves had alluded to Mississippi’s resistance to the Supreme Court’s racial integration rulings from the 1950s and 1960s, and he did so at greater length in this opinion, focusing on how H.B. 1523 was specifically intended by the legislature as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  Mississippi legislators made clear during the consideration of this bill that its intention was to allow government officials and private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people without suffering any adverse consequences, just as the state had earlier sought to empower white citizens of Mississippi to preserve their segregated way of life despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of race discrimination under the 14th Amendment.

 

                Reeves quoted comments by Governor Bryant criticizing Obergefell as having “usurped” the state’s “right to self-governance” and mandating the state to comply with “federal marriage standards – standards that are out of step with the wishes of many in the United States and that are certainly out of step with the majority of Mississippians.”  In a footnote, Reeves observed, “The Governor’s remarks sounded familiar.  In the mid-1950s, Governor J.P. Coleman said that Brown v. Board of Education ‘represents an unwarranted invasion of the rights and powers of the states.’”  Furthermore, “In 1962, before a joint session of the Mississippi Legislature – and to a ‘hero’s reception’ – Governor Ross Barnett was lauded for invoking states’ rights during the battle to integrate the University of Mississippi.”  Reeves also noted how the racial segregationists in the earlier period had invoked religious beliefs as a basis for failing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions.

 

                Turning to the merits of the case, Reeves addressed the state’s argument that the purpose of the statute was to “address the denigration and disfavor religious persons felt in the wake of Obergefell,” and the legislative sponsors presented it as such, as reflected in the bill’s title: “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”  Reeves pointed out what was really going on.  “The title, text, and history of H.B. 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell,” he wrote.  “The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions.  LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were ‘put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres’ to symbolize their second-class status.” (The quotation is from Romer v. Evans.)  “As in Romer, Windsor, and Obergefell,” Reeves continued, “this ‘status-based enactment’ deprived LGBT citizens of equal treatment and equal dignity under the law.”

 

                Because state law in Mississippi does not expressly forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, the state tried to claim that in fact the bill did not have the effect of imposing any new harm.  However, recently the city of Jackson passed an ordinance forbidding such discrimination, and the University of Southern Mississippi also has a non-discrimination policy in place.  “H.B. 1523 would have a chilling effect on Jacksonians and members  of the USM community who seek the protection of their anti-discrimination policies,” wrote Reeves.  “If H.B. 1523 goes into effect, neither the City of Jackson nor USM could discipline or take adverse action against anyone who violated their policies on the basis of a ‘Section 2’ belief.”

 

                The court held that because of the Establishment Clause part of the case, H.B. 1523 was subject to strict scrutiny judicial review, and also pointed out that under Romer v. Evans, anti-LGBT discrimination by the state is unconstitutional unless there is some rational  justification for it.  He rejected the state’s argument that it had a compelling interest to confer special rights upon religious objectors.  “Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise,” he wrote, H.B. 1523 “creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  It is not rationally related to a legitimate end.”  Indeed, he asserted, “The deprivation of equal protection of the laws is H.B. 1523’s very essence.”

 

                Reeves easily found that the standard for ordering preliminary relief had been met.  Not only was it likely that H.B. 1523 would be found unconstitutional in an ultimate ruling in the case, but it was clear that it imposed irreparable harm on LGBT citizens, that a balancing of harms favored the plaintiffs over the defendants, and that the public interest would be served by enjoining operation of H.B. 1523 while the lawsuits continue.  “The State argues that the public interest is served by enforcing its democratically adopted laws,” he wrote.  “The government certainly has a powerful interest in enforcing its laws.  That interest, though, yields when a particular law violates the Constitution.  In such situations the public interest is not disserved by an injunction preventing its implementation.”

 

                Reeves concluded, “Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together.  But H.B. 1523 does not honor that tradition of religious freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.  It must be enjoined.”

 

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.

Is ENDA Necessary? Or Will Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Take Care of LGBT Discrimination

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of the major legislative goals of the LGBT rights movement is to get Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a measure that has been pending in Congress in one form or another since 1996 (with predecessor “gay rights” bills having been introduced since the mid-1970s). ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, but would prohibit only intentional discrimination, not employer practices that are neutral on their face but have the effect of discriminating. It is narrowly drafted legislation, and has a big religious exemption that is controversial. And, although the current version was passed by a comfortable majority in the Senate last year, the Republican leadership in the House has refused to hold hearings or schedule a vote, and strategy for a “discharge petition” (a procedural floor vote to get the bill released from Committee and onto the floor for a vote on enactment) is at an early stage.

But what if ENDA is not needed? What if existing law already bans such discrimination? In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, whose Title VII bans employment discrimination because of sex. For a long time, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the federal courts have ruled that discrimination against LGBT people is not prohibited, because in 1964 Congress did not intend to forbid such discrimination. In effect, Title VII was limited to cases where people were suffering discrimination because they are a man or a woman.

But the Supreme Court came to view “sex discrimination” more broadly, ruling in one case that a woman who suffered discrimination because she failed to conform to gender stereotypes (“too butch”) was a victim of sex discrimination, and in another case that a man who encountered a hostile environment in an all-male workplace (treated by his rougher, tougher co-workers as a sex toy) might also have a valid claim under Title VII. The EEOC and some lower federal courts have taken the next step in recent years, holding that discrimination because of gender identity is a kind of sex discrimination, because it is inspired by discomfort or disapproval with people defying conventional gender roles. There is a recent EEOC formal opinion to that effect, and a growing body of federal court decisions support this view.

But what about lesbians, gay men or bisexuals who are not gender-nonconforming in their appearance or conduct, but who encounter discrimination simply because their employer, co-workers or customers are biased against gay people? Before March 31, there were no court opinions suggesting that such a person might be protected from discrimination under Title VII, although some law review commentators had made the argument. On March 31, however, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly made history by issuing her opinion in Peter J. Terveer v. James H. Billington, Librarian, Library of Congress, 2014 Westlaw 1280301, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43193 (U.S. District Ct., Dist. Columbia), holding that a man who suffered adverse treatment at the hands of an anti-gay supervisor could maintain a claim under Title VII, even though his only gender non-conforming characteristic is his sexual orientation.

According to the court’s opinion, Mr. Terveer was hired in February 2008 to be a Management Analyst in the Auditing Division of the Library of Congress. His first-level supervisor, John Mech, is described in the opinion as “a religious man who was accustomed to making his faith known in the workplace.” According to Terveer’s complaint, Mech said to him on June 24, 2009, that “putting you closer to God is my effort to encourage you to save your worldly behind.” According to the complaint, Terveer became close to Mech and Mech’s family, including his daughter. “In August 2009, Mech’s daughter learned that Plaintiff is homosexual,” wrote Judge Kollar-Kotelly. “Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff received an email from Mech mentioning his daughter and containing photographs of assault weapons along with the tagline ‘Diversity: Let’s Celebrate It.'”

Things went downhill from there. According to the complaint, Mech subjected Terveer to “work-related conversation to the point where it became clear that Mech was targeting Terveer by imposing his conservative Catholic beliefs on Terveer throughout the workday.” Terveer claimed that Mech stopped giving him detailed instructions with his assignments, instead making ambiguous assignments that, in effect, set up Terveer to fail, and assignments that were clearly beyond Terveer’s experience level. Terveer claims he was given one huge assignment that would normally require the attention of half a dozen employees, and then Mech piled additional work on top of that.

Terveer alleged that on June 21, 2010, Mech called an unscheduled meeting that lasted more than an hour, “for the purpose of ‘educating’ Terveer on Hell and that it is a sin to be a homosexual, that homosexuality was wrong, and that Terveer would be going to Hell.” Mech recited Bible verses to Terveer and told him, “I hope you repent because the Bible is very clear about what God does to homosexuals.” A few days later, Terveer received his annual review from Mech, and felt it did not reflect the quality of his work. Terveer believed that the review “was motivated by Mech’s religious beliefs and sexual stereotyping.” Terveer confronted Mech about this unfair treatment, which got Mech angry, vehemently denying that he was partial, and he accused Terveer of trying to “bring down the library.”

Terveer next went to Mech’s supervisor and told him about what was happening. According to Mech’s account of that meeting with Nicholas Christopher, Christopher told him that, in his opinion, “employees do not have rights,” and Christopher took no action to remedy the problem or advise Terveer about appropriate complaint procedures. According to Terveer, Mech’s response to this was to put Terveer under “heightened scrutiny” supervision by Mech and to generate an evaluation of the project to which Terveer had been assigned, even though it wasn’t finished, that was “extremely negative.” Terveer got into an argument with Mech about this evaluation, and Mech told him that he was “damn angry” that Terveer had threatened to bring a claim for wrongful discrimination and harassment. According to Terveer, Mech ended his tirade with the statement, “You do not have rights, this is a dictatorship.”

Early in 2011 Mech issued another negative evaluation of Terveer and put him on 90-day written warning, which could lead to Terveer not receiving the pay increase he would ordinarily receive. Terveer then initiated a discrimination claim with the EEOC. An attempt by another agency officer to get him transferred away from Mech failed when Mech’s supervisor said that Terveer was “on track to be terminated within six months.” As things deteriorated further for Terveer, he finally filed a formal complaint on November 9, 2011, alleging discrimination because of religion and sex, sexual harassment, and reprisal. Terveer had been suffering emotional distress from the situation and ended up taking lots of leave time, ultimately claiming that he was constructively terminated on April 4, 2012, because he could not return to the workplace to confront Mech and Christopher. The Library formally terminated him, and his appeal within the Library’s grievance process was unsuccessful. The agency issued a decision on May 8, 2012, denying his discrimination claims. He filed suit on August 3, 2012, alleging violations of Title VII and the constitution, as well as Library of Congress regulations and policies.

The court faced a variety of legal issues in ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, the most serious of which was the failure of Terveer to pursue various administrative remedies before he resorted to a lawsuit. But perhaps the most important part of the opinion addresses the Defendant’s claim that the facts alleged by Terveer would not suffice for a legal claim of discrimination under Title VII. At the time that the Defendants filed this motion, federal courts had limited protection against discrimination for gay men to situations where a supervisor’s discriminatory conduct was motivated by judgments about a plaintiff’s behavior, demeanor or appearance that failed to conform to sexual stereotypes, and Terveer was not alleging that his behavior or appearance failed to conform to stereotypes about “manly men.”

But Judge Kollar-Kotelly saw Title VII’s protection as broader than these traditional gender stereotyping cases. “Under Title VII,” she wrote, “allegations that an employer is discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s non-conformity with sex stereotypes are sufficient to establish a viable sex discrimination claim. Here, Plaintiff has alleged that he is ‘a homosexual male whose sexual orientation is not consistent with the Defendant’s perception of acceptable gender roles,’ and that his ‘status as a homosexual male did not conform to the Defendant’s gender stereotypes associated with men under Mech’s supervision or at the (Library of Congress),’ and that ‘his orientation as homosexual had removed him from Mech’s preconceived definition of male.'” This, found the judge, was sufficient to meet the burden under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Since Terveer had alleged that the Library had denied him promotions and created a hostile work environment because of his “nonconformity with male sex stereotypes,” Terveer could proceed with his claim.

The judge emphasized that the burden on the plaintiff to state a claim at this stage of the litigation is “relatively low” when a court is deciding a motion to dismiss, before there has been any discovery in the case. Interestingly, the judge found another basis for Terveer’s Title VII claim in the religiously-motivated bias of his supervisor, observing that past courts had allowed claims of discrimination in such cases. “The Court sees no reason to create an exception to these cases for employees who are targeted for religious harassment due to their status as a homosexual individual,” she wrote, refusing to dismiss Terveer’s religious discrimination claim under Title VII. The judge also found that Terveer’s factual allegations would be sufficient grounding for a claim of a “retaliatory hostile work environment.” However, she noted, having found that Terveer’s claims are covered, at least at this early stage in the case, under Title VII, the court would have to dismiss his constitutional due process and equal protection claims, as the Supreme Court has made clear that Title VII is the exclusive remedy for federal employees with discrimination claims that come within its scope.

The bottom line for this ruling was that although certain claims were dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the court refused to dismiss the sex and religious discrimination claims, as well as the retaliation claim. In so doing, the court made history with its acceptance that a gay man who was not gender non-conforming in appearance or behavior could assert a sex discrimination claim when a supervisor’s own religiously-inspired stereotyped notions of proper sex roles motivated adverse treatment of the gay employee.

While such a ruling is most welcome, it would probably be premature to suggest that ENDA is not needed. This is one non-precedential ruling on a pre-trial dismissal motion by a single federal judge. However, it reflects the broadening trend of defining sex under Title VII reflected in the growing body of cases rejecting motions to dismiss such claims brought by transgender plaintiffs, and may portent more definitive rulings expanding Title VII’s sex discrimination ban to claims brought by otherwise-gender-conforming LGBT plaintiffs.