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Federal Court Blocks Trump Regulation Revoking Health Care Protections for Transgender People

Posted on: August 18th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Frederic Block ruled on August 17 that a new Trump Administration Rule that rescinded the Obama Administration’s Rule prohibiting gender identity discrimination in health care will not go into effect on August 18, its scheduled date, and he granted a preliminary injunction against the new Rule’s enforcement.  Judge Block sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn. Walker v. Azar, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148141.

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to adopt a rule providing an official interpretation of the non-discrimination requirements contained in Section 1557 of that statute.  Section 1557 incorporates by reference a provision of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids discrimination because of sex in educational institutions that get federal funding.  In the past, HHS and federal courts have looked to decisions interpreting the sex discrimination provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, in interpreting Title IX.

By the time HHS had finished writing its rule in 2016, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several federal appeals courts had interpreted Title VII to ban discrimination because of an individual’s gender identity.  The Obama Administration followed these precedents and included a prohibition on gender identity discrimination in its ACA rule.  Several states and a religious health care institution then joined together to challenge the rule before a federal district judge in Fort Worth, Texas, who was notoriously receptive to issuing nationwide injunctions against Obama Administration policies, and the court was true to that practice, holding that the inclusion of gender identity was contrary to the “original meaning” of the term “because of sex” when it was adopted by Congress in Title IX back in 1972.  The case is Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, 227 F. Supp. 3d 660 (N.D. Tex. 2016).

The new Trump Administration rule that was challenged in the August 17 ruling was intended by the Department of Health and Human Services to codify the decision by district court in Franciscan Alliance.  Franciscan Alliance was issued in December 2016, just weeks before the Trump Administration took office.  Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, the incoming administration would likely have appealed the Fort Worth decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. But the Trump Administration informed the district court that it was not appealing and instead would not enforce the Obama Administration rule and would eventually replace it.

Judge Block emphasized this history as he set out his reasons for finding that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and its volunteer attorneys from Baker & Hostetler LLP, were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Trump Rule was both inconsistent with the ACA, and that HHS was “arbitrary and capricious” in adopting this new Rule and publishing it just days after the Supreme Court had ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination against a person because of their transgender status was “necessarily discrimination because of sex.”

The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in the Bostock case, which concerned the interpretation of Title VII, on October 8, 2019, while HHS was working on its proposed new rule.  The HHS attorneys knew that the Supreme Court would be issuing a decision by the end of its term, most likely in June 2020.  One of the three cases consolidated in Bostock involved a gender identity discrimination claim by Aimee Stephens against Harris Funeral Homes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had sued the employer on Stephens’ behalf.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Stephens for transitioning, and the Supreme Court granted review on the specific question whether discrimination because of transgender status violates Title VII.  HHS concedes in the “preamble” of its new rule that interpretations of Title IX (and thus Section 1157) generally follow interpretations of Title VII.

October 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum to the Executive Branch explaining the Trump Administration’s position that bans on sex discrimination in federal law did not extend to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Thus, although the U.S. Solicitor General normally represents federal agencies such as the EEOC when their decisions are appealed to the Supreme Court, that office actually joined in  arguing on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, leaving it to the ACLU LGBT Rights Project to represent Aimee Stephens before the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration was so confident that the Court would rule against Stephens that it decided to go ahead with its new Rule, effectively revoking the Obama Administration’s Rule, although the “preamble” did acknowledge that a decision by the Supreme Court in the Title VII case could affect the interpretation of Section 1557.  LGBTQ rights advocates waited impatiently for a ruling in the Bostock case as the Court began to wind up its Term in June.  The Trump Administration was no more patient, announcing its new Rule a few days before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Bostock, apparently assuming that the Court would rule against Stephens.  Without publicly reacting to the Supreme Court’s opinion, or even revising its new Rule to acknowledge that the Trump Administration’s interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” had been rejected by the Supreme Court (in an opinion by Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch), HHS went ahead and published the new Rule five days later.

Over the following weeks, challenges to the new Rule were filed in four different federal courts.  HRC filed suit on behalf of two transgender women who had encountered discrimination from health care institutions covered by the ACA.  Judge Block found that their experiences gave them formal standing to challenge the new Rule. Judge Block reached his decision the day before the new Rule was to go into effect.

He found that the well established practice of following Title VII interpretations in sex discrimination cases was likely to be followed under the ACA, just as it was under Title IX, and thus the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claim that the new Rule was inconsistent with  the statute.  He noted that just two weeks earlier, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had followed the Bostock decision in finding that a Florida school district violated Title IX by denying appropriate restroom access to a transgender student.

Furthermore, the failure of the new rule, published after the Bostock decision, to mention that ruling or to offer any reasoned explanation why it should not be followed, was likely to be found to be “arbitrary and capricious,” so the adoption of the new Rule probably violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the federal law that details how federal agencies are to proceed in adopting new rules and regulations or rescinding old ones.

Because of the December 2016 ruling in Franciscan Alliance and the subsequent non-enforcement policy by the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration’s Rule has not been enforced by HHS since December 2016.  But the ACA allows individuals who suffer discrimination to sue on  their own behalf to enforce the statute, and there have been numerous lawsuits under Section 1557 successfully challenging exclusion of transgender health care from coverage under health insurance policies that are subject to the ACA.

Judge Block’s stay of the effective date and injunction against enforcing the new Rule gives the green light to HHS to resume enforcing Section 1557 in gender identity discrimination cases consistent with the Bostock ruling.  While there are probably plenty of career agency officials in the HHS Office of Civil Rights who would like to do so, any significant effort in that direction seems unlikely so long as Trump remains in office.  For now, the main impact of Judge Block’s order will be to clear a potential obstacle for transgender litigants under Section 1557, as the opinion persuasively explains how Justice Gorsuch’s reasoning in Bostock compels protecting transgender health care patients under the ACA.

The  practical effect of Judge Block’s ruling now is to place the burden on HHS if it wants to  continue defending its new Rule.  HHS must provide a reasoned explanation to the Court about why the Bostock interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” should not be followed under Section 1557.  The simplest way for HHS to proceed consistent with the court’s order would be to strike those portions of the preamble discussing this subject, and to substitute a simple statement that Section 1557’s ban on discrimination because of sex includes claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation  or gender identity consistent with  the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of similar statutory language in the Bostock case.

2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Revives Religious Adoption Agency’s Challenge to New York Anti-Discrimination Rule

Posted on: July 22nd, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York, has revived a Syracuse religious adoption agency’s constitutional challenge to the New York Office of Children and Family Service (OCFS) regulation prohibiting discrimination because of marital status or sexual orientation by adoption agencies. New Hope insists, based on its religious principles, that it cannot provide adoption services to unmarried people or same-sex couples.  OCFS threatened to terminate New Hope’s status as an approved agency if it does not comply.  New Hope Family Services, Inc. v. Poole, 2020 WL 4118201, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 22630 (2nd Cir., July 21, 2020).

New Hope Family Services has been an approved adoption service provider for more than fifty years and estimates that it has placed more than 1,000 children for adoption.  Although it is not affiliated with any church or formal religious movement, it identifies as a Christian agency, requires its employees to subscribe to articles of faith, and will not, consistent with its belief that children are best served in a “Biblical” family constructed of a husband, wife and child, screen potential adoptive parents who do not conform with this model.  New Hope alleges that if single people or same-sex couples seek its services, it would refer them to another agency that is willing to provide the services.  Thus, it claims, nobody is ultimately denied the ability to adopt a child based on their marital status or sexual orientation, and it has not received inquiries from same-sex couples seeking its services.

Under New York law, only agencies “authorized” by the state may provide adoption services, which include evaluating potential adoptive parents, matching them with children needing placements, supervising placements, and preparing reports to the court that will ultimately decide whether to approve an adoption.  State law and regulations set out detailed criteria concerning who may adopt a child and the factors that an approved agency, such as New Hope, are supposed to consider in determining whether it would be in the best interest of a child to be adopted by a particular person or couple.

Although adoption was traditionally limited to married couples, over the years the legislature amended the law to widen the scope of individuals who are permitted to adopt. In 2010, the adoption law was amended to state that an “adult unmarried person, an adult married couple together, or any two unmarried adult intimate partners together may adopt another person.”  The amendment was intended to reflect court decisions that had allowed the same-sex partners of parents to adopt their children, some going the next step by allowing same-sex couples to adopt.  As of 2010, same-sex couples could not legally marry in New York, but the courts had begun to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, including Canada and several states. When Governor David Paterson signed the bill into law, he stated that the law would not require any agency to change its current practices, since it was “permissive,” not mandatory.

The adoption statute authorizes OCFS to adopt regulations to implement the law.  In 2011, after the new statutory provision went into effect, OCFS adopted a regulation providing that an applicant to adopt children could not be rejected “solely on the basis of homosexuality.” OCFS sent an informational letter to the adoption agencies stating that the purpose of the regulation “is to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the adoption study assessment process,” and that “OCFS cannot contemplate any case where the issue of sexual orientation would be a legitimate basis, whether in whole or in part, to deny the application of a person to be an adoptive parent.”

Two years later, OCFS issued a new regulation which requires authorized adoption agencies to “prohibit discrimination and harassment against applicants for adoption services on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, religion, or disability, and to take reasonable steps to prevent such discrimination or harassment by staff and volunteers, promptly investigate incidents of discrimination and harassment, and take reasonable and appropriate corrective or disciplinary action when such incidents occur.”

In 2018, OCFS undertook an audit of every adoption agency’s policies and practices.  New Hope passed the on-site audit with ease, but when their written policies were reviewed, OCFS took note of the policy of declining services to single people and same-sex couples, and advised OCFS that it needed to change its policy to comply with the non-discrimination policy.  New Hope dug in its heels, and eventually OCFS warned New Hope that it would have to close its operation if it would not comply with the non-discrimination policy.  Significantly, this did not occur as a result of anybody having been turned away or filed a complaint.

New Hope filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, claiming a violation of its constitutional rights, but the district court dismissed the lawsuit and denied New Hope’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from ending their authorized status while the case was pending.  The judge, Mae D’Agostino, found that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, New Hope was not entitled to claim an exemption from compliance with the law based on its religious beliefs.  Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court in that case said that there is no free exercise of religion exemption from complying with state laws of “general application” that are “neutral” regarding religion.

New Hope appealed to the 2nd Circuit, which reversed the district court on July 21.  The three-judge panel found, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Reena Raggi, that the complaint filed for New Hope by Alliance Defending Freedom contained sufficient factual allegations to at least raise an issue of whether New Hope had been targeted due to hostility by OCFS to its religious beliefs.  The court’s opinion notes that the adoption statute itself does not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, but rather broadens the previous categories of individuals who are legally authorized to adopt children, leaving some question whether OCFS could adopt a non-discrimination requirement through a regulation.  Furthermore, the court noted Governor Paterson’s statement when the law was amended to allow unmarried couples to adopt that it was not intended to require any agencies to change their policies, because the statute was merely “permissive.”  The court also noted in quotations from the correspondence between OCFS and New Hope various statements that could be construed as hostile to or disapproving of New Hope’s religious beliefs.

In light of these and other factors, the court concluded that it was “premature” for the district court to dismiss the case outright.  In deciding a motion to dismiss, the trial court is supposed to treat as hypothetically true all the facts alleged by the plaintiff and to decide whether those facts, if proven, might provide the basis for a valid legal claim.  And, since the court found dismissal to be premature, it directed the trial court to reinstate the lawsuit on the active docket and to analyze whether New Hope is entitled to a preliminary injunction to allow it to carry on its operations while the case is being litigated.

The court was careful to make clear that was not deciding the merits of the case.  The opinion provides a detailed and searching discussion of the concepts of “neutral state laws” (meaning “neutral” regarding religion) and laws that are “generally applicable.”  The court noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that the rule of Employment Division v. Smith does not necessarily apply to situations where a law that looks neutral and generally applicable on its face is shown to have been motivated by government animus towards a particular group or, in the case of religion, animus towards particular religious practices.  The court also took note of the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, 138 S. Ct. 1719, in which it reversed a state court ruling that Masterpiece violated a public accommodations law by refusing to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  The reversal was based on the Court’s conclusion that the state’s civil rights agency had displayed hostility to the baker’s religious views in the administrative hearing process.

Government discrimination against religious organizations was also targeted by the Supreme Court this Term when it held that the state of Montana’s scholarship program for students attending private schools could not exclude religious schools from participating, since this would be “discrimination” against religion.

The court also rejected the trial court’s analysis of New Hope’s argument that requiring it to evaluate and endorse same-sex couples as adoptive parents was a form of compelled speech.  Judge D’Agostino found that this would be “government speech,” because by authorizing New Hope to evaluate applicants the government was delegating to New Hope a governmental function.  Judge Raggi’s opinion questioned this conclusion, pointing out that New Hope was not a government contractor and was not paid by the government to undertake this activity.  Rather, it is an independent agency supported by fees for its services and charitable contributions.  New Hope has always avoided taking government money because it wanted to preserve its freedom to operate consistently with its religious beliefs.

The court also took note of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case similar in many respects to this case.  The 3rd Circuit held that the City did not violate Catholic Social Services’ constitutional rights when it dropped that agency from participating in the City’s foster care system because of its refusal to deal with same-sex couples.  That case also relied on Employment Division v. Smith.  Judge Raggi observed that at least four justices of the Supreme Court have expressed the view in various dissenting or concurring opinions that the Court should “revisit” the holding of Smith, which was a controversial case when it was decided and which provoked Congress into passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was then imitated by many states (although not New York).  If the Supreme Court reverses the Fulton decision or modifies Employment Division v. Smith, the rules governing the New Hope case will be changed.  Judge Raggi also pointed out key distinctions between the two cases.  In Fulton, the Catholic agency was a city contractor and relied heavily on compensation from the city to perform its services, while New Hope, as noted above, is an independent operator that is “authorized” by the state to perform services but is not a contractor or funding recipient.

The case now goes back to District Judge D’Agostino to consider New Hope’s request for a preliminary injunction and to conduct discovery which may culminate in a summary judgment or a trial on the merits if the parties don’t settle the case first through some compromise.  In light the pace at which such proceedings take place, it is likely that the Supreme Court will have ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia before Judge D’Agostino has to render a final decision on the merits in New Hope’s case.

Judge Raggi was appointed to the Court of Appeals by President George W. Bush.  She previously served on the District Court, having been appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Circuit Holds That It Was Not “Clearly Established” That Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Public Employment is Actionable Under the Equal Protection Clause Prior to Obergefell and Windsor

Posted on: September 8th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In the course of deciding an appeal by some supervisory public employees of a district court’s refusal to accord them qualified immunity from a discharged employee’s claim of discrimination because of perceived sexual orientation (that took place in 2010), a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals stated in Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (Aug. 12, 2019), that it was not then “clearly established” by the Supreme Court or the 2nd Circuit prior to the rulings in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable under in a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 claim alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The opinion for the panel by Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes suggests that it might be “possible today that sexual orientation discrimination in public employment may be actionable under Section 1983,” but at the time of the conduct challenged in this case “such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established’” so the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from the claim.  In a footnote, Judge Cabranes acknowledged that as early as 1996, in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 634, and again in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, the Supreme Court “had already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays,” but in this case the plaintiff had not alleged “such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”  He also noted that under Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591 (2008), the plaintiff could not bring a “class of one” equal protection case “simply on the basis that her termination was individually arbitrary.”

On March 10, 2010, Binghamton University’s Athletic Director, James Norris, informed Elizabeth Naumovski, then assistant coach of the women’s basketball team, that she would be discharged if she did not resign.  She resigned and filed her discrimination charges with the NY State Division of Human Rights and the EEOC.  After exhausting administrative remedies against the school, she filed suit in federal court, adding discrimination claims under the Constitution against the Athletic Director and the Head Coach of the team as well as the university employer.  Norris and Scholl sought unsuccessfully to get U.S. District Judge David Hurd to dispose of the claims against them on grounds of qualified immunity, as part of his overall ruling on motions for summary judgment, and this appeal to the 2nd Circuit concerns Judge Hurd’s failure to grant their motions, which he implicitly did by denying them summary judgment.

Naumovski, a single woman in her thirties, became the subject of rumors concerning her possible relationship with a woman on the team, identified in the opinion as J.W.  Complaints from other students that Naumovski was showing favoritism to this woman came to the head coach and the then-assistant athletic director, James Norris, who, according to Judge Cabranes, “states that he understood the rumors to refer to a relationship of favoritism between a coach and a student-athlete, rather than to a sexual relationship between the two.”  Norris discussed these rumors with the Athletic Director, “who assured him that the allegations were the baseless fabrications of disgruntled former members of the Binghamton Athletics community.”  Norris was promoted to the athletic directorship on September 30, 2009.

In response to the persisting rumors during the fall term of 2009, Head Coach Nicole Scholl “imposed various restrictions on interactions between coaches and student-athletes to avoid any perception of impropriety.”  According to Naumovski’s allegations, “As a result of the increased scrutiny triggered by these restrictions, Naumovski began to suffer from depression and stress-induced weight loss.” She met with Norris to address the rumors, and claims he told her that “your problem is that you’re a single female in your mid-30s,” implying that the rumors were due to a perception that she was a lesbian.  Norris denies having made that comment, a potential material fact in the overall scheme of the litigation, in terms of the school’s potential liability.

The rumors persisted into 2010, as Norris continued to receive complaints about “favoritism” by Naumovski towards J.W. Friction developed between Naumovski and Head Coach Scholl, who felt that “Naumovski was trying to undermine her leadership of the team.”  Wrote Cabranes, “Naumovski does not deny tension between herself and Scholl; rather, she claims that any such tension ceased after a February 9, 2010 meeting with Scholl.  Naumovski further claims that Scholl and Norris never expressed any additional concerns about her coaching performance after that time.”  However, during a phone call on February 21, Scholl and Norris agreed that Naumovski’s employment should be terminated at the end of the basketball season in March. “The decision was purportedly based on Naumovski’s demonstrated favoritism toward certain student-athletes and the disruptive impact of her workplace conflicts with Scholl,” writes Cabrances, relating the defendants’ claims.  Meanwhile, Norris continued to receive student complaints and things came to a head when J.W.’s family received “an anonymous, vulgar letter accusing her of ‘screwing’ Naumovski,” which J.W. told Naumovksi about, and which led J.W.’s mother to call Norris; it is disputed whether the letter was mentioned in that phone call.  However, a week after that call, Norris informed Naumovski that she was being fired for performance reasons, but she could resign to forestall being fired, which she did.

Naumovski’s suit alleges discrimination based on her sex, perceived sexual orientation, and national origin (Canadian), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment (42 USC 1983), as well as the NY Constitution and NY Human Rights Law.  Defendants moved for summary judgment after discovery.  “The motion remained pending for several years,” write Cabranes, not being decided until April 17, 2018, when District Judge Hurd granted summary judgment to Binghamton University and the State University of New York on all constitutional claims but allowed statutory claims to proceed to trial. (Perhaps Judge Hurd was waiting to rule on the motions for a final resolution by the Circuit of whether sexual orientation claims are actionable under Title VII, which emerged with the Zarda v. Altitude Express en banc ruling in February 2018.) As to the individual defendants, Scholl and Norris, Hurd dismissed all claims except for Naumovski’s sex-based disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims under 42 USC 1983 (Equal Protection), failing to address the issue of their qualified immunity from constitutional claims even though they sought to invoke immunity in their summary judgment motion.  Judge Hurd subsequently denied a motion by Norris and Scholl for reconsideration on the immunity argument as untimely under local rules, asserting that it did not raise any new issues, and they appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

Judge Cabranes devoted considerable space in his opinion to explaining the different proof requirements on the statutory claims and the constitutional claims.  In particular, he noted, under Title VII, the plaintiff can win by showing that her sex or perceived sexual orientation was a “motivating factor” for discrimination, but on the constitutional equal protection claim, her burden would be to show that it was a “but-for” factor.  He also devoted a portion of the opinion to itemizing the various other ways in which the statutory and constitutional claims receive different treatment, finding that the district court seems to have conflated the two separate modes of analysis in its decision.  Furthermore, he pointed out that the statutory claims under employment discrimination law run only against the institutional employer, not against individuals, while the constitutional claims could be asserted against individuals who are “state actors,” but who enjoy qualified immunity from personal liability unless it is “clearly established” by appellate precedent that the discrimination with which they are charged is, if proven, unconstitutional.

Turning to the subject of the appeal, Judge Hurd’s implicit denial (or failure to recognize) qualified immunity from the constitutional claims for Norris and Scholl, Cabranes noted that the 2nd Circuit’s review of the district court’s “implicit” rejection of the qualified immunity claims “is complicated by several factors.  First, the District Court never addressed the claims of qualified immunity in its Memorandum-Decision and Order; it is therefore impossible to review its specific reasoning in denying relief on this ground.  Second, while both the Complaint and the District Court’s Memorandum-Decision and Order conclude that Defendants’ alleged conduct constitutes sex discrimination (either through disparate treatment or subjection to a hostile environment), neither explains precisely how Defendants’ conduct can be so construed.  Third, the District Court opinion conflates its analysis of Naumovski’s Title VII and Sec. 1983 claims, rendering our task of reviewing only the Sec. 1983 claims more difficult.”  Attempting to “reconstruct the logic” of the District Court’s denial of immunity to Scholl and Norris on the constitutional claims, the court concluded that “no theory can sustain the District Court’s implicit denial of Defendant’s qualified immunity.”

First addressing the sex discrimination claim, the court found that there was a lack of evidentiary allegations to support the claim, apart from Naumovski’s allegation about Norris’s remark concerning her status as a single woman in her 30s, which the court concluded did not “constitute sufficient evidence to make out a case of employment discrimination,” characterizing it as “the sort of ‘stray remark’ that is insufficient to support an inference of discriminatory intent.”  While Judge Hurd referred to “other indicia” of discrimination intent, the appeals court was not convinced:  “The only ‘other indicia,’ however, is evidence suggesting that Scholl and Norris interpreted the rumors as alleging a sexual relationship between Naumovski and J.W., rather than mere favoritism from one to the other.  The invocation of such evidence is unavailing.  Even if we assume Scholl and Norris interpreted the allegations against Naumovski as sexual in nature, that fact provides no additional support for a conclusion that Scholl’s and Norris’s own actions were based on discriminatory animus toward women in general or any subcategory of female employees in particular,” wrote Cabranes.  Thus, the conclusion that summary judgment should have been granted on the sex discrimination claim.

The court also discussed the possibility that Naumovski could succeed on a sex-stereotyping claim; i.e., “Norris and Scholl stereotyped Naumovski based on her sex (possibly in combination with other characteristics) as more likely to have engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship with J.W.  Defendants then fired Naumovski (at least in part) because of their wrongful and discriminatory belief that she engaged in sexual impropriety with a student and, subsequently, attempted to conceal that stereotyping played any role in their termination decision.”  While the court agreed that such a theory might work in some cases, “Naumovski cannot succeed on such a theory” because of the “but-for” proof requirement for a constitutional violation.  In order to prevail, “Naumovski must establish that a reasonable jury could find that Defendants would not have terminated her based on their stated reasons alone.  To be sure, there may well be cases in which misconduct findings based on sex stereotyping meet the ‘but-for’ discrimination standard,” Cabranes continued.  “Here, however, we do not think that the evidence, even construed in the light most favorable to Naumovski, satisfies that standard.”  Cabranes gives an extended explanation for this conclusion, noting in particular that “Naumovski does not materially dispute that Scholl’s personality and coaching style clashed with her own,” which on its own would be a legitimate reason to let go an assistant coach who was an at-will employee.

Turning to the perceived sexual orientation discrimination claim, Cabranes came to the issue of most direct relevance to Law Notes: whether public officials enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for discriminating against their employees because of actual or perceived sexual orientation.  He pointed out that if the district court was relying on the 2nd Circuit’s 2018 Zarda decision for this proposition, “it erred for at least two reasons.”  First, Zarda was a statutory interpretation case under Title VII, not a constitutional case, thus the Circuit’s decision that discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII includes discrimination because of sexual orientation was not a ruling the sexual orientation claims should be treated the same as sex discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment.  Second, the conduct at issue in this case (2009-2010) predated Zarda by many years.  Given the 2nd Circuit’s pre-Zarda caselaw, Cabranes pointed out, at the time Naumovski was fired, “the ‘clearly established law’ … was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.”

“Nor could the District Court rely on freestanding constitutional principles separate from Zarda,” continued Cabranes.  “To date, neither this court nor the Supreme Court has recognized Sec. 1983 claims for sexual orientation discrimination in public employment.  Moreoever, when the conduct in this case occurred, neither of the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage cases – United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges – had been decided.  It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect.”  At this point, Cabranes wrote a footnote acknowledging the existence of Romer and Lawrence, but distinguishing them based on Naumovski’s factual allegations. Cabranes’ opinion does not explicitly state that a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity today from an adverse personnel decision based on sexual orientation, but he implies that after Windsor and Obergefell, “state distinctions based on sexual orientation” are “constitutionally suspect,” a point that some scholars have argued, attempting to give more teeth to Justice Kennedy’s opinions in those cases than some might see in them.  To be clear, neither of those cases explicitly states that government distinctions based on sexual orientation are to be treated the same as sex discrimination cases and enjoy heightened scrutiny under the 14th Amendment.  Justice Kennedy did not employ that vocabulary, and arguably placed more weight on the liberty interest in marriage in those cases.

The court also found that Norris and Scholl would clearly enjoyed qualified immunity from a claim that their decision relied on biased student claims against Naumovski, and also that a constitutionally-based hostile environment claim based on sex or perceived sexual orientation in a public employment context was not clearly actionable under 42 USC 1983, as the precedential basis for such claims has been developed thus far only under Title VII.

Summarizing the Court of Appeals holding, Cabranes wrote that Section 1983 claims for discrimination in employment require plaintiffs to establish that the defendants’ discriminatory intent was a “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action, that because of the intent requirements under the Equal Protection clause, a Section 1983 claim for employment discrimination “cannot be based on a respondeat superior or ‘cat’s paw’ theory to establish a defendant’s liability (thus ruling out liability for Scholl and Norris based on complaints by discriminatory students), and defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because, “even when interpreted in the light most favorable to Naumovski, the record cannot support the conclusion that they violated her ‘clearly established’ constitutional rights.”

Naumovski is represented by A. J. Bosman of Rome, N.Y.  Judge Cabranes was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel were Ralph Winter (Reagan) and Renee Raggi (George W. Bush).

8th Circuit Revives Videographer’s 1st Amendment Claim Against Having to Make Same-Sex Wedding Videos

Posted on: August 29th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on August 23 that a commercial videographer could assert a 1st Amendment claim that it was privileged to refuse to make wedding videos for same-sex couples, as an exemption from compliance with Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, which expressly forbids public accommodations from discrimination because of a customer’s sexual orientation.  Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 25320, 2019 WL 3979621.  The court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim, which had dismissed the videographer’s suit seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.  See Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, 271 F. Supp. 3d 1090 (D. Minn. 2017).

Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote for the majority, which included Circuit Judge Bobby Shepard, an appointee of President George W. Bush.  The dissent was by Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, and is the only Democratic appointee now sitting on the 8th Circuit in either an active or senior capacity.  District Judge Tunheim was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Carl and Angel Larsen, who make commercial videos under the corporate name of Telescope Media Group, decided they wanted to expand their business into wedding videos, but because of their religious beliefs, they did not want to get into this line of work if they would be required to make videos for same-sex weddings.  Anticipating that a refusal to make such videos would bring them into conflict with Minnesota’s Human Rights Law, the filed an action in federal district court seeking a ruling that they had a 1st Amendment right to refuse such business.  They argued that making wedding videos is an expressive activity protected by the Free Speech Clause, and that, although the Supreme Court has ruled that people are not excused from complying with neutral state laws of general application based on their religious beliefs, there was an argument that when a religious free exercise claim is intermingled with a claim based on another constitutional right (in this instance, free speech), the state may be required to accommodate the person claiming constitutional protection against enforcement of the state law.

Judge Tunheim rejected their constitutional arguments, dismissing their lawsuit, and they appealed to the 8th Circuit.  Their case presents a parallel to one of the earliest appellate rulings rejecting a constitutional exemption from complying with a state public accommodations law on similar facts: Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 309 P. 3d 53 (N.M. 2013), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 1787 (2014).  In that case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a commercial wedding photographer who refused to make a photo album for a lesbian couple celebrating their commitment ceremony did not enjoy a 1st Amendment free speech or free exercise exemption from a state law banning sexual orientation discrimination.  That court also rejected the photographer’s claim under New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, finding that complying with the state’s anti-discrimination law would not substantially burden the photographer’s freedom of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Elane Photography’s petition to review the New Mexico court’s ruling.

Judge Stras’s opinion based its conclusion on a conflation of the Larsens’ business with the film studies that make movies for public exhibition.  During oral argument, it was reported, the Larsen’s activities in making a video were likened to the work of prominent film producers/directors like Steven Spielberg.  This was a specious comparison, not because Spielberg is a great filmmaker, but because the Larsen’s do not produce feature films or documentaries aimed at a public market, in which the content of the film is the speech of the filmmaker.  Rather, they make films for hire, in order to communicate the message of the customer who hires them.

Stras wrote: “The Larsens . . . use their ‘unique skills to identify and tell compelling stories through video,’ including commercials, short films and live-event productions.  They exercise creative control over the videos they produce and make ‘editorial judgments’ about ‘what events to take on, what video content to use, what audio content to use, what text to use . . ., the order in which to present content, whether to use voiceovers.”  In other words, they exercise their professional judgment to make the films ordered by their customers, but the customers who are paying to have the films made ultimately determine what the message of the film will be.  The Larsens’ role is to translate that message into an effect filmic presentation.

In describing their contemplated move into making wedding videos, they want these videos to “capture the background stories of the couples’ love leading to commitment, the [couples’] joy . . . the sacredness of their sacrificial vows at the altar, and even the following chapters of the couples’ lives.”

“The Larsens believe that the videos, which they intend to post and share online, will allow them to reach ‘a broader audience to achieve maximum cultural impact’ and ‘affect the cultural narrative regarding marriage.’”  Presumably, they hoped to tap into the burgeoning on-line phenomenon of shared wedding videos, which seem to have a considerable audience.  But their representation by Alliance Defending Freedom suggests an ulterior motive, that the Larsens have volunteered (or were recruited) to be plaintiffs as part of ADF’s strategy to get a case to the Supreme Court in hopes of broadening the rights of religious business owners to avoid complying with anti-discrimination laws, and perhaps even getting the Court to overrule its precedents denying religious free exercise exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, while at the same time creating a constitutional wedge issue for businesses whose goods or services might be characterized as “expressive.”

Even though the Larsens do not presently make wedding videos, and they do not claim that they have ever been approached to make a video of a same-sex wedding or threatened with prosecution for refusing to do so, the court first determined that they have standing to seek their declaratory judgment, because when the proposition was presented to officials of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, they made clear that a refusal to provide videography services to same-sex couples would be considered a violation of the state’s anti-discrimination law.  Thus, the Larsens claimed to the satisfaction of the 8th Circuit panel that they faced a credible threat of prosecution and had standing to bring the case.

Turning to the merits, Stras wrote, “The Larsens’ videos are a form of speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection. . .  although the Larsens do not plan to make feature films, the videos they do wish to produce will convey a message designed to ‘affect public attitudes and behavior.’  According to their complaint, they will tell ‘healthy stories of sacrificial love and commitment between a man and a woman,’ depicting marriage as a divinely ordained covenant, and oppose the ‘current cultural narratives about marriage with which they disagree.’ By design, they will serve as a ‘medium for the communication of ideas’ about marriage.  And like the creators of other types of films, such as full-length documentaries, the Larsens will exercise substantial ‘editorial control and judgment.’”  He concluded, “The videos themselves are, in a word, speech.”

Stras insisted that applying the Minnesota Human Rights Act to the Larsens’ business “is at odds with the ‘cardinal constitutional command’ against compelled speech.  The Larsens to not want to make videos celebrating same-sex marriage, which they find objectionable.  Instead, they wish to actively promote opposite-sex weddings through their videos, which at a minimum will convey a different message than the videos the MHRA would require them to make.”

Stras insisted that this case fell into line with various U.S. Supreme Court precedents blocking the government from compelling a private actor to express a message they don’t want to express, citing, among other cases, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, where the Court recognized the Scouts’ 1st Amendment right to ban gay men from serving as volunteer leaders of Scout troops.  In that case, the Court said that requiring the Scouts to let out gay James Dale be an assistant scoutmaster would be compelling them to communicate a message of approval for homosexuality.  The ruling in that case was by a vote of 5-4, overruling a 4-3 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Stras also placed great weight on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurley v. GLIB, holding that Massachusetts could not compel the Catholic veterans association that ran Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade to include a gay Irish organization marching with a banner proclaiming their identity, because that would be forcing a message on to the parade that the organizers did not want to communicate.

The consequence of Stras’s analysis was not only that the Larsens can assert their free speech claim, but that the court must subject the application of the MHRA to strict scrutiny, placing the burden on the state to prove that requiring the Larsens to made same-sex wedding videos is necessary to fulfill a compelling government interest.

The court also accepted the Larsens’ argument that they should be allowed to assert a free exercise of religion claim “because it is intertwined with their free speech claim,” constituting a so-called “hybrid rights claim.”  The Supreme Court has mentioned that possibility in some cases, although it remains more theoretical than precedential at this point because most legal analysts have considered these mentions as not part of the holdings in the opinions where they appear.  But Stras pointed out two 8th Circuit decisions where that court has used the hybrid rights theory, making it fair game for litigation within the circuit.  The Supreme Court had articulated it as a possible exception to the general rule in Employment Discrimination v. Smith, speculating that had the plaintiff been able to claim a violation of some other constitutional right in addition to free exercise of religion, he might have a valid claim.  But Stras insisted that the Court’s comments actually related to the holdings in some prior cases.  However, he noted, “it is not at all clear that the hybrid-rights doctrine will make any real difference in the end” because the Court was already holding that the Larsens’ free speech claim “requires the application of strict scrutiny.”

The court did reject the Larsens’ alternative theories of freedom of association and equal protection. The former claim, if recognized, would render anti-discrimination laws virtually unenforceable, and the latter defeated by the general application of the MHRA, which did not on its face single out any particular group for disfavored treatment.  The court also rejected the Larsens’ argument that the law was unconstitutionally vague, or imposed unconstitutional conditions upon the operation of a business in the state.

The court sent the case back to the district with directions to “consider in the first instance whether the Larsens are entitled to a preliminary injunction, keeping in mind the principle that ‘when a plaintiff has shown a likely violation of his or her First Amendment rights, the other requirements for obtaining a preliminary injunction are generally deemed to have been satisfied.”

Judge Kelly’s dissent was several pages longer than the majority opinion.  “No court has ever afforded ‘affirmative constitutional protections’ to private discrimination,” she wrote.  “Indeed, caselaw has long recognized that generally applicable laws like Minnesota’s may limit the First Amendment rights of an individual in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public.”  On this point, she cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), in which the reluctant baker had refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  In that opinion, Kennedy acknowledged that religious and philosophical objects to same-sex marriage enjoy First Amendment protection, but “such objections do not allow business owners . . . to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”  Judge Kelley observed, “That well-established principle should have easily disposed of this case.”

She contested Judge Stras’s attempt to “recharacterize Minnesota’s law as a content-based regulation of speech.”  She argued that the law does not compel the Larsens to communicate any particular message about marriage.  “What they cannot do,” she wrote, “is to operate a public accommodation that serves customers of one sexual orientation but not others. And make no mistake,” she continued, “that is what today’s decision affords them license to do.”  She asserted that the conduct in which the Larsens wish to engage if they expand into the wedding video business would involve denying services based on the sexual orientation of customers.  “That the service the Larsens want to make available to the public is expressive does not transform Minnesota’s law into a content-based regulation, nor should it empower the Larsens to discriminate against prospective customers based on sexual orientation.”  The rest of her opinion takes much inspiration from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent from the Court’s holding in Masterpiece.

Pointing to an earlier ruling, she wrote, “The Supreme Court has already health that the MHRA is constitutional, in the process rejecting many of the same arguments that the court adopts today.  Just recently, it reaffirmed that, although ‘religious and philosophical objections [to same-sex marriage] are protected, it is a general rule that such 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.’ The Supreme Court is free to revise or overturn its precedents,” she continued.  “We are not.  Rather than disturb bedrock principles of law, I would affirm the district court’s order in full.”

The state can seek review of this decision by the full bench of the 8th Circuit, but that circuit has an overwhelmingly Republican/conservative tilt at present.  Of the eleven active judges, only one, Judge Kelly, was appointed by a Democratic president.  Trump has managed to place four judges on the court, where all but one of the other judges was appointed by George W. Bush, with the senior-most of the active judges having been appointed by the first President Bush.  Clinton’s appointees have all died or retired.  Perhaps the state should apply directly to the Supreme Court for review, but who is to say that Justice Kennedy’s comments, relied upon by Judge Kelly, would find majority support on the Court now that Neil Gorsuch has replaced Kennedy?

Catholic Foster Care Agency Seeks Supreme Court Review of Exclusion from Philadelphia Program

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

Catholic Social Services (CSS), a religious foster care agency operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which on April 22 rejected CSS’s claim that it enjoys a constitutional religious freedom right to continue functioning as a foster care agency by contract with the City of Philadelphia while maintaining a policy that it will not provide its services to married same-sex couples seeking to be foster parents.  The decision below is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 922 F.3d 140 (3rd Cir. 2019).

CSS and several of its clients sued the City when the agency was told that if it would not drop its policy, it would be disqualified from certifying potential foster parents whom it deemed qualified to the Family Court for foster care placements and its contract with the City would not be renewed.  CSS insists that the City’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation by public accommodations, does not apply to it, and that it is entitled under the 1st Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to maintain its religiously-based policy without forfeiting its longstanding role within the City’s foster care system.

The Petition filed with the Clerk of the Court on July 22 is one of a small stream of petitions the Court has received in the aftermath of its June 26, 2015, marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, in which the Court held that same-sex couples have a right to marry and have their marriages recognized by the states under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.   Dissenters in that 5-4 case predicted that the ruling would lead to clashes based on religious objections to same-sex marriage.  Most of those cases have involved small businesses that refuse to provide their goods or services for same-sex weddings, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision from last spring, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).

This new petition is one of many that may end up at the Court as a result of clashes between local governments that ban sexual orientation discrimination and government contractors who insist that they must discriminate against same-sex couples for religious reasons.  Catholic foster care and adoption services have actually closed down in several cities rather than agree to drop their policies against providing services to same-sex couples. CSS argues that it will suffer the same fate, since the services it provides – screening applicants through home studies, assisting in matching children with foster parents, and providing support financially and logistically to its foster families through funding provided by the City – can only legally be provided by an agency that has a contract with the City, and that even as its current contract plays out, the refusal of the City to accept any more of its referrals has resulted in its active roster of foster placements dropping by half in a short period of time, requiring laying off part of its staff.

Desperate to keep the program running, CSS went to federal district court seeking preliminary injunctive relief while the case is litigated, but it was turned down at every stage.  Last summer, when the 3rd Circuit denied a motion to overturn the district court’s denial of preliminary relief, CSS applied to the Supreme Court for “injunctive relief pending appeal,” which was denied on August 30, with the Court noting that Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the Application.  See 139 S. Ct. 49 (2018). That at least three justices would have provided interim relief suggests that CSS’s Petition for review may be granted, since the Court grants review on the vote of four justices, and Brett Kavanaugh, who was not on the Court last August, might provide the fourth vote.

According to its Petition, CSS dates from 1917, when the City of Philadelphia was not even involved in screening and licensing foster parents.  CSS claims that from 1917 until the start of this lawsuit, it had never been approached by a same-sex couple seeking to be certified as prospective foster parents.  CSS argues that as there are thirty different agencies in Philadelphia with City contract to provide this service, same-sex couples seeking to be foster parents have numerous alternatives and if any were to approach CSS, they would be promptly referred to another agency.  CSS argues that referrals of applicants among agencies are a common and frequent practice, not a sign of discrimination.

CSS has three different arguments seeking to attract the Court’s attention.  One is that it was singled out due to official hostility to its religiously-motivated policy and that the City’s introduction of a requirement that foster agencies affirmatively agree to provide services to same-sex couples was inappropriately adopted specifically to target CSS.  Another is that the 3rd Circuit misapplied Supreme Court precedents to find that the City’s policy was a “neutral law of general application” under the 1990 Supreme Court precedent of Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), and thus not subject to serious constitutional challenge.  Finally, CSS argues, the Smith precedent has given rise to confusion and disagreement among the lower federal courts and should be reconsidered by the Supreme Court.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been urging the Court to reconsider Smith, which was a controversial decision from the outset.  In Smith, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Oregon Unemployment System’s refusal to provide benefits to an employee who was discharged for flunking a drug test. The employee, a native American, had used peyote in a religious ceremony, and claimed the denial violated his 1st Amendment rights.  The Court disagreed, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, holding that state laws that are neutral regarding religion and of general application could be enforced even though they incidentally burdened somebody’s religious practices.  Last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part in Masterpiece Cakeshop, suggested reconsideration of Smith, and since the Masterpiece ruling, other Petitions have asked the Court to reconsider Smith, including the “Sweetcakes by Melissa” wedding cake case from Oregon.  So far, the Court has not committed itself to such reconsideration.  In the Sweetcakes case, it vacated an Oregon appellate ruling against the recalcitrant baker and sent the case back to the state court for “further consideration” in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, but said nothing about reconsidering Smith.

The CSS lawsuit arose when a local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, published an article reporting that CSS would not provide foster care services for same-sex couples.  The article sparked a City Council resolution calling for an investigation into CSS.  Then the Mayor asked the Commission on Human Relations (CHR), which enforces the City’s Fair Practices Ordinance (FPO), and the Department of Human Services (DHS), which contracts with foster care agencies, to investigate.  The head of DHS, reacting to the article’s report about religious objections to serving same-sex couples, did not investigate the policies of the many secular foster care agencies.  She contact religious agencies, and in the end, only CSS insisted that it could not provide services to same-sex couples, but would refer them to other agencies.

After correspondence back and forth and some face to face meetings between Department and CSS officials, DHS “cut off CSS’s foster care referrals,” which meant that “no new foster children could be placed with any foster parents certified by CSS.”  DHS wrote CSS that its practice violated the FPO, and that unless it changed its practice, its annual contract with the City would not be renewed. This meant that not only would it receive no referrals, but payments would be suspended upon expiration of the current contract, and CSS could no longer continue its foster care operation.  CSS and several women who had been certified by CSS as foster parents then filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction to keep the program going, which they were denied.

CSS’s Petition is artfully fashioned to persuade the Court that the 3rd Circuit’s approach in this case, while consistent with cases from the 9th Circuit, is out of sync with the approach of several other circuit courts in deciding whether a government policy is shielded from 1st Amendment attack under Smith.  Furthermore, it emphasizes the differing approaches of lower federal courts in determining how Smith applies to the cases before them.  The Supreme Court’s interest in taking a case crucially depends on persuading the Court that there is an urgent need to resolve lower court conflicts so that there is a unified approach throughout the country to the interpretation and application of constitutional rights.

The Petition names as Respondents the City of Philadelphia, DHS, CHR, and Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride, who were defendant-intervenors in the lower courts.  Once the Clerk has placed the Petition on the Court’s docket, the respondents have thirty days to file responding briefs, although respondents frequently request and receive extensions of time, especially over the summer when the Court is not in session.  Once all responses are in, the case will be distributed to the Justices’ chambers and placed on the agenda for a conference.  The Court’s first conference for the new Term will be on October 1.

Last summer, when the Court was considering Petitions on cases involving whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, the U.S. Solicitor General received numerous extensions of time to respond to the Petitions, so those cases were not actually conferenced until the middle of the Term and review was not granted until April 22.  Those cases will be argued on October 8, the second hearing date of the Court’s new Term.

The Petitioners are represented by attorneys from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative religiously-oriented litigation group that advocates for broad rights of free exercise of religion, and local Philadelphia attorneys Nicholas M. Centrella and Conrad O’Brien.  Their framing of this case is reflected in the headline of their press release announcing the Petition: “Philly foster mothers ask Supreme Court to protect foster kids.”

Municipal respondents are represented by Philadelphia’s City Law Department.  Attorneys from the ACLU represented the Intervenors, who were backing up the City’s position, in the lower courts.

The 3rd Circuit was flooded with amicus briefs from religious freedom groups (on both sides of the issues), separation of church and state groups, LGBT rights and civil liberties groups, and government officials.  One brief in support of CSS’s position was filed by numerous Republican members of Congress; another by attorney generals of several conservative states.  The wide range and number of amicus briefs filed in the 3rd Circuit suggests that the Supreme Court will be hearing from many of these groups as well, which may influence the Court to conclude that the matter is sufficiently important to justify Supreme Court consideration.

Federal Court Rejects Christian Agency’s Claimed Constitutional Right to Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples Seeking to Adopt Children

Posted on: May 27th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino has rejected a Christian social welfare agency’s bid to be exempted from complying with non-discrimination regulations promulgated by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).  Ruling on May 16 in New Hope Family Services, Inc. v. Poole, 2019 WL 2138355, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2138355 (N.D.N.Y.), the court rejected a variety of constitutional arguments advances by the plaintiff in support of its claim of a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to adopt children.

The plaintiff, New Hope Family Services, is an “authorized agency” with the authority to “place out or to board out children” and “receive children for purposes of adoption” under the New York Social Services Law and regulations adopted by the Office of Children and Family Services.  Under the law, the agency must “submit and consent to the approval, visitation, inspection and supervision” of OCFS, which must approve the agency’s certificate of incorporation.  Pastor Clinton H. Tasker founded New Hope in 1958 “as a Christian ministry to care for and find adoptive homes for children whose birth parents could not care for them,” wrote Judge D’Agostino.  Because of its religion beliefs, New Hope “will not recommend or place children with unmarried couples or same sex couples as adoptive parents,” it states in its complaint.  New Hope’s “special circumstances” policy states: “If the person inquiring to adopt is single . . . the Executive Director will talk with them to discern if they are truly single or if they are living together without benefit of marriage… because New Hope is a Christian Ministry it will not place children with those who are living together without the benefit of marriage.  If the person inquiring to adopt is in a marriage with a same sex partners . . . the Executive Director will explain that because New Hope is a Christian Ministry, we do not place children with same sex couples.”

Prior to 2010, New York’s Domestic Relations Law provided that authorized agencies could place children for adoption only with “an adult unmarried person or an adult husband and his adult wife.”  In September 2010, New York amended the law to allow placements with “an adult unmarried person, an adult married couple together, or any two unmarried adult intimate partners together.”  After New York adopted its Marriage Equality law in 2011, OCFS issued a letter on July 11, 2011, stating that the intent of its regulations “is to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the adopting study assessment process.  In addition, OFCS cannot contemplate any case where the issue of sexual orientation would be a legitimate basis, whether in whole or in part, to deny the application of a person to be an adoptive parent.”  In 2013, the adoption regulations were amended to prohibit outright discrimination “against applicants for adoption services on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, religion, or disability.”  OCFS followed this up with an “informational letter” in 2016, advising authorized agencies to formalize their non-discrimination policies consistent with the regulations.

In its complaint challenging these developments, New Hope (represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT religious litigation group) claims, according to Judge D’Agostino, that the agency promulgated these regulations “purporting to require adoption providers to place children with unmarried and same-sex couples in complete disregard for the law, the scope of OFCS’s authority, and the rights of adoption providers.”

The lawsuit stemmed from action by OFCS, contacting New Hope early in 2018 to inform the agency that “under a new policy implemented in 2018, OFCS would be conducting comprehensive on-site reviews of each private provider’s procedures,” and following up in mid-July with an email to schedule New Hope’s program review, including a list of things that had to be reviewed, including New Hope’s “policies and procedures.”  OFCS requested a copy of New Hope’s formal policies and procedures as part of this review.  Later in 2018, after reading New Hope’s procedures, OFCS Executive Director Suzanne Colligan called New Hope, noting the “special circumstances” provision, and informing new Hope that it would “have to comply” with the regulations “by placing children with unmarried couples and same-sex couples,” and that if New Hope did not comply, it would be “choosing to close.”  New Hope ultimately refused to comply after a series of email and letter exchanges with OFCS.

New Hope filed its complaint on December 6, 2018, claiming 1st and 14th amendment protection for its policies, claiming that OFCS’s interpretation of state law “targets, show hostility toward, and discriminates against New Hope because of its religious beliefs and practices” and also violates New Hope’s freedom of speech.  The complaint also alleged an equal protection violation, and claimed that the state was placing an “unconstitutional condition” by requiring New Hope to comply with the non-discrimination policy in order to remain an “authorized agency.”  The complaint sought preliminary injunctive relief against enforcement of the policy.

New Hope tried to escape the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which holds that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with neutral state laws of general application, by relying on a statement in Hosannah-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), in which the Supreme Court held that the 1st Amendment protects religious institutions from government interference in their selection of ministerial personnel.  New Hope argued that “cases teach that even a genuinely ‘neutral law of general applicability’ cannot be applied when to do so would interfere in historically respected areas of religious autonomy.”  New Hope claimed that the state regulation was adopted “for the purpose of targeting faith-based adoption ministries” and thus was “not neutral or generally applicable as applied.”

Judge D’Agostino was not convinced, referring to a decision by the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia rejecting similar arguments by Catholic Social Services in that city in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 320 F. Supp. 3d 661 (E.D. Pa. 2019), which has been affirmed by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, 922 F.3d 140 (April 22, 2019).  The judge observed that the courts in the Philadelphia case had found similar requirements under a Philadelphia anti-discrimination ordinance to be “facially neutral and generally applicable” and “rationally related to a number of legitimate government objectives.”  And, she noted, “In affirming the district court, the Third Circuit rejected CSS’s claims that the application of the anti-discrimination clause is impermissible under Smith and its progeny.”  Judge D’Agostino found the 3rd Circuit’s ruling persuasive in this case.

“On its face,” wrote the judge, “18 N.Y.C.R.R. sec. 421.3(d) is generally applicable and it is plainly not the object of the regulation to interfere with New Hope’s, or any other agency’s, exercise of religion.”  She found that the requirement to comply is imposed on all authorized agencies, “regardless of any religious affiliation,” and that it is neutral.  “Nothing before the Court supports the conclusion that section 421.3(d) was drafted or enacted with the object ‘to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation.”  The adoption of the requirement was a natural follow-up to the legislature’s passage of a law that codified “the right to adopt by unmarried adult couples and married adult couples regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The purpose was to prohibit discrimination.

The court also rejected the argument that the regulations are not neutral because they allow agencies to take account of a variety of factors in evaluating proposed adoptive parents, including “the age of the child and of the adoptive parents, the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of the child and the capacity of the adoptive parent to meet the needs of the child with such background as one of a number of factors used to determine best interests.”  As the 3rd Circuit found in Fulton, there is a significant difference between a policy of outright refusal to place children with unmarried or same-sex couples and the application of an evaluative process focusing on the characteristics described in the regulations.  “Further,” wrote D’Agostino, “nothing in the record suggests that OCFS has knowingly permitted any other authorized agency to discriminate against members of a protected class.”

New Hope also argued that the enforcement of the regulation was not neutral, instead evincing hostility against religious agencies such as itself.  Rejecting this argument, the judge wrote, “The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” quoting key language from the 3rd Circuit: “If all comment and action on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well.”

The court also rejected New Hope’s argument that the regulation violates the Free Speech clause of the 1st Amendment “insofar as it forces New Hope to change the content of its message” and to affirmatively recommend same-sex couples to be adoptive parents, in effect imposing an “unconstitutional condition” on New Hope.  The essence of the analysis is that designating New Hope an “authorized agency” for this purpose is delegating a governmental function to New Hope, and any speech in which New Hope engages to carry out that function is essentially governmental speech, not New Hope’s private speech as a religious entity.  “Therefore,” she wrote, “OCFS is permitted to ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message,’ that adoption and foster care services are provided to all New Yorkers consistent with anti-discrimination policy set forth” in the regulation, “was and is ‘neither garbled nor distorted by New Hope.’”  She concludes that “OCFS is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey.  New Hope is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same sex couples.  Rather, the only statement being made by approving such couples as adoptive parents is that they satisfy the criteria set forth by the state, without regard to any views as to the marital status or sexual orientation of the couple.”

The court similarly dismissed New Hope’s claim that applying the regulation violated its right of expressive association, rejecting New Hope’s argument that this case is controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), where the court found that the BSA had a 1st Amendment right to dismiss an out gay man from the position of Assistant Scoutmaster, based on the determination by 5 members of the Court that requiring the BSA to allow James Dale to serve would be a form of compelled endorsement of homosexuality.  The Court deemed the BSA an expressive association that had a right to determine its organizational message.  By contrast, found Judge D’Agostino, “New Hope has not alleged facts demonstrating a similar harm that providing adoption services to unmarried or same sex couples would cause to their organization.  New Hope is not being required to hire employees that do not share their same religious values,” she wrote.  “They are not prohibited in any way from continuing to voice their religious ideals.”  And even if the regulation worked “a significant impairment on New Hope’s association rights,” she continued, “the state’s compelling interest in prohibition the discrimination at issue here far exceeds any harm to New Hope’s expressive association.”

The court also found no merit to New Hope’s Equal Protection claim based on a spurious charge of selective enforcement, finding no indication that OCFS was allowing other, non-religious agencies to discriminate while cracking down on New Hope.  As to the “unconstitutional conditions” cause of action, the judge wrote that the court “views New Hope’s unconstitutional conditions claim as a mere repackaging of its various First Amendment claims and, therefore, the Court similarly repackages its resolution of those claims.”

Consequently, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, and granted OCFS’s motion to dismiss the case.  ADF will undoubtedly seek to appeal this ruling to the 2nd Circuit.

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.