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Impatient Christians File Suit Against EEOC’s Interpretation of Title VII and Seek Exemption from Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages

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

The U.S. Pastor Council (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), and Braidwood Management, Inc., a business claiming to have religious objections concerning the employment of LGBTQ people (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), have jointly filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth Division), seeking a declaratory judgment that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, and they seek to enjoin the federal government from enforcing these policies against any employer who objects to homosexual or transgender behavior on religious grounds.  U.S. Pastor Council & Braidwood Management Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Case No. 4:18-cv-00824-O (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Texas, filed March 29, 2019).  They seek class certification and nation-wide injunctive relief.  Other named defendants include EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic and Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows, Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States of America.  (Lipnic and Burrows are the only currently serving EEOC commissioners, as Trump’s nominees to fill three vacancies were not confirmed in the last session of the Senate, and the Commission as a body lacks a quorum to act at present.)

The headline’s reference to “impatient Christians” points to the Supreme Court’s unexplained delay in deciding whether to grant writs of certiorari in three pending cases that pose the question whether Title VII can be interpreted, as it has been by the EEOC and some circuit courts of appeals, to prohibit employment discrimination because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  If the Supreme Court finally takes these cases and decides them during its October 2019 Term, this lawsuit could be at least partially mooted.  But the complaint ranges more broadly, tempting the court (and ultimately the Supreme Court) to reconsider two of its constitutional precedents that are not beloved by the Court’s current conservative majority: Employment Division v. Smith and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The docket number of the case indicates that it has been assigned to District Judge Reed O’Connor, which means that it is highly predictable that the plaintiffs will get much of the relief they are seeking from the district court.  In earlier lawsuits, Judge O’Connor issued nationwide injunctions against the federal government’s enforcement of Obamacare and Title IX in gender identity cases, disagreeing that the term “discrimination because of sex” could be construed to extend to gender identity.  See Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, 227 F.Supp.3d 660 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 31, 2016) (Obamacare); Texas v. United States, 201 F. Supp. 3d 810 (N.D. Tex. 2016) (Title IX).  Since the current political appointees leading the Justice Department probably agree with the plaintiff’s position on all or most of the claims raised in this complaint, one reasonably suspects that any serious defense can only be mounted by Intervenors, and the government would only appeal pro-plaintiff rulings by Judge O’Connor in order to get a rubber stamp approval from the 5th Circuit on the way to the Supreme Court. Trump has worked hard to cement a conservative majority on the 5th Circuit, having quickly filled five of the vacancies preserved for him by the Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama nominees to the circuit courts.  A new vacancy waits to be filled, and more elderly Republican appointees on the circuit (two active Reagan appointees who have been there more than thirty years) are likely to retire soon enough.

The complaint’s first count argues that the government has no compelling reason to enforce a prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity against employers with religious objections, and thus that the EEOC as a federal agency should be found to be precluded from doing so under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The second count argues that because Title VII exempts religious employers from its ban on religious discrimination, it is thereby not a law of “general applicability,” so Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), is “inapplicable” to the question whether imposing a non-discrimination obligation on employers who are subject to the statute (those with 15 or more employees) violates their constitutional Free Exercise rights under the 1st Amendment.  The complaint observes that the ministerial exemption to Title VII that the Supreme Court has found for religious institutions does not extend to businesses, and further does not extend to the non-ministerial employees of religious organizations, thus imposing a burden on both kinds of employers who are subject to Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  Furthermore, they argue that if the court disagrees with their characterization of Title VII and finds that Employment Division v. Smith would apply in their Free Exercise claim, that decision should be overruled (which, of course, the district court can’t do, but this lawsuit is obviously not intended to stop at the district court).  Justice Neil Gorsuch implied in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June that the Supreme Court should reconsider this precedent.

In terms of the practical impact of the EEOC’s position, the complaint says in its third count that Braidwood Management’s benefits administrator has amended its employee benefits plans to recognize same-sex marriages, complying with guidance on the EEOC’s website, and Braidwood wants to instruct the administrator to return to a traditional marriage definition, consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.  Thus, part of the declaratory judgment plaintiffs seek would proclaim that employers with religious beliefs against same-sex marriage should be allowed to refuse to recognize them for employee benefits purposes.  In several counts, the complaint tempts the court to declare as illegitimate the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, and to excuse religious organizations and businesses from having to recognize same-sex marriages, except possibly in states where same-sex marriage became available through state legislation, unlike Texas, where it exists by compulsion of the federal courts (and certainly against the wishes of the state government).

In terms of standing issues, Braidwood points out that the EEOC has actively enforced its interpretation of Title VII by bringing enforcement actions and filing amicus briefs in support of LGBTQ plaintiffs against employers with religious objections, most prominently in the Harris Funeral Home case, in which the EEOC sued a business that had discharged a transgender employee because of the employer’s religious objections.  The funeral home prevailed in the district court on a RFRA defense, the trial judge finding that in the absence of RFRA the funeral home would have been found in violation of Title VII.  However, the 6th Circuit reversed in part, rejecting the district court’s RFRA analysis and finding a Title VII violation.  The funeral home’s petition for certiorari was filed in the Supreme Court last July, but that Court had made no announcement regarding a grant or denial at the time this complaint was filed on March 29 – impatient Christians, again.

The fourth count claims that the EEOC’s requirement that employers post a notice to employees announcing their protection under Title VII is unconstitutionally compelled speech.  “Employees who read this sign and see that Braidwood is categorically forbidden to engage in ‘sex’ discrimination will assume (incorrectly) that Braidwood is legally required to recognize same-sex marriage, extend spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples, and allow its employees into restrooms reserved for the opposite biological sex,” says the complaint, indicating that Braidwood’s proprietor “is not willing to have Braidwood propagate this message without sufficient clarification.”

The sixth count summons the Administrative Procedure Act to attack the EEOC’s issuance of guidance on its website concerning its interpretation of Title VII, claiming that this constitutes a “rule” that is subject to judicial review under that statute.  The complaint asks the court to “hold unlawful and set aside” the EEOC’s regulatory guidance, invoking Section 706 of the APA.  Braidwood Management also claims to speak in this count as representative of all businesses in the U.S. that “object to the constitutional reasoning in Obergefell, excluding employers in states where same-sex marriage was legalized through legislation.”

The complaint lists as plaintiffs’ counsel Charles W. Fillmore and H. Dustin Fillmore of Fort Worth (local counsel in the district court) and Jonathan F. Mitchell of Austin.  The heavy gun here is Mitchell, a former Scalia clerk and Texas Solicitor General who has been nominated by President Trump to be Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS).  It seems ironic that Trump’s nominee is suing the federal government: the Justice Department and its head (in his official capacity) and the EEOC and its commissioners (in their official capacity), but despite naming the United States as a defendant, plaintiffs are not suing the president by name (in his official capacity, of course).

Supreme Court Stays Two Preliminary Injunctions Against Transgender Military Ban, Leaving Only One Injunction in Place

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

On January 22 the Supreme Court granted applications by Solicitor General Noel Francisco to stay the two nationwide preliminary injunctions that were issued in December 2017 by U.S. District Judges on the West Coast to stop President Donald Trump’s ban on military service by transgender individuals from going into effect. The vote was 5-4, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicating that they would have denied the applications for stays. Although the stays mean that the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban is no longer blocked by those two injunctions, it is still blocked by an injunction issued by a federal judge in Baltimore.

The Supreme Court issued these two stays “pending disposition of the Government’s appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and disposition of the Government’s petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is sought.” At the same time, the Supreme Court denied the Solicitor General’s petitions to leapfrog the 9th Circuit and take its appeal of the district court actions for direct review. These petitions were practically rendered moot, at least for now, by the Supreme Court’s granting of the stays. When the Court made its announcement at 9:30 am on January 22, the 9th Circuit had not yet ruled, although a three-judge panel heard oral arguments on the government’s appeal several months ago.

The Supreme Court’s action did not immediately allow the Defense Department to implement the ban, however. That awaits a ruling by U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, who is still considering the government’s motion to dissolve the nationwide preliminary injunction issued on November 21, 2017, by now-retired U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis in Baltimore in Stone v. Trump. That case was reassigned to Judge Russell after Judge Garbis retired last June. On November 30, Judge Russell issued his only ruling in the case so far, largely affirming an August 14 ruling by Magistrate Judge A. David Copperthite on disputed discovery issues in the case. However, in his November 30 ruling, Judge Russell rejected the government’s contention that certain “findings of fact” by Judge Copperthite were unreasonable. Among those were Copperthite’s finding that the version of the ban announced by Defense Secretary James Mattis in February 2018, which Trump authorized Mattis to put into effect, was still a ban on military service by transgender people, despite differences from the version described by the White House in an August 2017 memorandum.

On January 4, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated a similar preliminary injunction that was issued on October 31, 2017, by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the District Court in Washington, D.C., and directed Judge Kollar-Kotelly to reconsider her conclusion that the version of the ban that President Trump authorized Mattis to implement was essentially the same ban that she had enjoined. The D.C. Circuit panel unanimously ruled, based on the government’s allegations about the differences in the policies, that her conclusion was “clearly erroneous.” The D.C. Circuit’s ruling was, of course, not binding on Judge Russell, because Maryland is under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but it may influence Judge Russell’s consideration of that issue while he ponders how to rule on the government’s motion pending in his court.

The government’s position in all four of the pending cases challenging the constitutionality of the ban has been that the “Mattis Policy” announced in February 2018 was significantly different from the version of the ban described in Trump’s August 2017 Memorandum, and thus that the four preliminary injunctions against the August 2017 version should be vacated as moot.

The government now takes the position that the so-called “Mattis Policy,” which bans service by individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, is no longer a categorical ban of all transgender service members, as described in Trump’s notorious tweets of July 26, 2017. For one thing, the Mattis Policy carves out an exception, allowing transgender individuals who are already serving to continue doing so despite being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, although those who have not transitioned when the new policy goes into effect will not be allowed to do so and still remain in the service. (This exception, of course, contradicts the government’s argument that individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria are not fit to serve.) For another thing, the Defense Department contends that because not all individuals who identify as transgender have either been diagnosed with gender dysphoria or desire to make a medical transition, the basis for the disqualification for military service has effectively been shifted by the Mattis Policy from gender identity to gender dysphoria. As such, the government argues, the district courts’ conclusion that the ban discriminates on the basis of transgender status in violation of Equal Protection no longer applies. Instead, the ban is based on a medical condition, as to which the courts should defer to military expertise, because courts have never second-guessed the military’s determination that people with a diagnosed medical condition may be unfit to serve.

The Supreme Court’s action does not grant the government’s request to dissolve the preliminary injunctions that were issued in December 2017 by District Judges Marsha J. Pechman (Seattle) and Jesus Bernal (Riverside, California), and thus should not be interpreted as taking a position on whether those injunctions should have been issued, but merely agrees to the government’s request to stay their effect while the 9th Circuit decides how to rule on the government’s appeal from those district judges’ denial of the government’s motions to dissolve the injunctions. In the meantime, all four district courts are dealing with contentious arguments as the government refuses to comply with the plaintiffs’ discovery demands, making it difficult for the courts to proceed with the cases. These cases are raising significant issues about the extent to which the government should be forced to disclose details of its decision-making process that are crucial to determining whether the policy they are now defending was adopted for constitutionally impermissible reasons.

Attention now focuses on Judge Russell, whose eventual ruling on the government’s motion to dissolve Judge Garbis’s preliminary injunction will decide, at least for the moment, whether the transgender ban goes into effect or remains blocked while the litigation continues. If Judge Russell follows the lead of the other district judges, he will deny the motion and Solicitor General Francisco will likely petition the Supreme Court to grant a stay similar to the ones issued on January 22. The question now is whether Judge Russell finds the D.C. Circuit’s analysis to be persuasive. If he does, the ban may go into effect, even as all four cases challenging the ban continue to be fiercely litigated by the plaintiffs.

As to the stays issued on January 22, the Supreme Court’s Order says that if the government is dissatisfied with the 9th Circuit’s disposition of its appeals and files new Petitions for Supreme Court review, the stays will remain in effect. If the Court ultimately denies such petitions, “this order shall terminate automatically.” If the Court grants those petitions, the stay would remain in effect until the Supreme Court rules on the appeal.