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Nevada Supreme Court Holds Obergefell Requires Retroactive Recognition of Out-of-State Same-Sex Marriages (but Not Civil Unions) for Community Property Purposes

Posted on: December 31st, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court of Nevada unanimously ruled on December 23 that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), must be applied retroactively in determining the commencement date of the marital “community” for purposes of dividing assets in a divorce, but such constitutionally-demanded retroactivity extends only to marriages, not to civil unions.  LaFrance v. Cline, 2020 WL 7663476, 2020 Nev. Unpub. LEXIS 1209.

Mary Elizabeth LaFrance and Gail Cline, Nevada residents, went to Vermont to have a civil union ceremony in 2000, returning home to Nevada.  In 2003, when same-sex marriage became available in Canada, they went there and got married, then returned to their home in Nevada.  In 2014, they decided to break up their marriage and filed for judicial dissolution.  That was the year that a lawsuit brought marriage equality to Nevada, in Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014).  Nevada is a community property state, and it became necessary for the trial court to decide what property and assets were part of the “community” for purposes of division of assets.  Responding to LaFrance’s argument as of 2018 when the Clark County 8th Judicial District Court had to decide, Judge Mathew Harter concluded that pursuant to Obergefell he should find that the community came into effect when the parties entered into their civil union in 2000, and divided property accordingly.  LaFrance appealed, contending that for purposes of Nevada law, their marital community didn’t come into effect until the Latta decision in 2014.

The Nevada Supreme Court decided that both parties were incorrect.  Under Nevada law as of the time the petition for dissolution was filed, a civil union from Vermont could be recognized for these purposes but only if the parties had registered their civil union as a domestic partnership with the Nevada Secretary of State, and these women had not done so.  Thus, the court held in an opinion by Chief Justice Kristina Pickering, Judge Harter erred in dating the community from 2000.

On the other hand, the court ruled, the 2003 Canadian marriage should be deemed the date when the community was formed.  Even though it was not recognized in Nevada at that time, the court found that it must be retroactively recognized pursuant to Obergefell.

“In 2015, before the parties’ divorce was finalized, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell,” wrote Chief Justice Pickering.  “The Court in Obergefell held that ‘the right to marry is a fundamental right,’ and that each state must ‘recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State.’  Although the Supreme Court has not opined on the retroactive effects of its Obergefell holding, the Supreme Court has ‘recognized a general rule of retrospective effect for [its] constitutional decisions,’” citing Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86, 94 (1993).  Since the parties’ divorce was not finalized until after Obergefell was decided, the court concluded that “the Supreme Court’s constitutional decision in Obergefell, requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages, applies retroactively to the parties’ 2003 Canadian marriage.”  Thus, 2003 is the commencement date for the marital community.

LaFrance protested that this was unfair, arguing that she and Cline had been operating all those years under the assumption that they did not have any legal rights as a couple in Nevada throughout the period of their Canadian marriage.  (Recall that Latta was not decided until the year they initiated their divorce proceedings, the year prior to Obergefell.)  No matter, said the court.  “Nevada must credit the parties’ marriage as having taken place in 2003 and apply the same terms and conditions as accorded to opposite-sex spouses.  These conditions include a presumption that any property acquired during the marriage is community property, NRS 123.220, and an opportunity for spouses to rebut this presumption by showing by clear and certain proof that specific property is separate.”

Thus, the property division issue was remanded to Judge Harter “to apply community property principles, including tracing, to the parties’ property acquired after their 2003 Canadian marriage.”

Justice Abbi Silver recused herself from the case voluntarily.  The version of the opinion issued on Westlaw and Lexis as of the end of December did not list counsel for the parties.

Supreme Court Lets Stand 7th Circuit Decision on Lesbian Spouses and Birth Certificates

Posted on: December 14th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Henderson v. Box, 947 F.3d 482 (2020), that the state of Indiana must extend to married lesbian couples the same parentage presumption it applies to married different sex couples: that a birth mother’s spouse is presumed to be a parent of her child, that  the child be deemed born “in wedlock,” and that both mothers be named as parents on the birth certificat.  On December 14, the Supreme Court denied the State of Indiana’s petition to review that ruling without explanation or any dissent.  Box v. Henderson, 2020 WL 7327836 (Dec. 14, 2020).

On one hand, this action might be seen as routinely expected, because the Supreme Court decided a similar case from Arkansas exactly this way in 2017.  In Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075, the Court voted 6-3 to reverse a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court.  That opinion was issued per curiam, although a close reading would identify the hand of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., author of the Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, in which the Court not only said that same-sex couples have a constitutional right under the 14th Amendment to marry, but also that such marriages must be treated by the states as equal in every respect to the marriages of different sex couples.  In Obergefell, Justice Kennedy specifically mentioned listing on birth certificates as one of the incidents of legal marriage from which same-sex couples had previously been excluded.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a dissenting opinion in Pavan, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, arguing that the Obergefell ruling did not necessarily compel the conclusion stated by the Court and that the Court should have scheduled briefing and a full hearing on the question rather than issue a summary per curiam ruling.

Since Pavan was decided, Justice Kennedy has retired and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, being replaced respectively by Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, both religious conservatives.  When Indiana filed its petition for review in the Henderson case last spring, Justice Ginsburg was still on the Court and the Pavan v. Smith majority was intact.  The same-sex couples who had filed the lawsuit, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, did not even file an opposition, assuming the Court would dismiss the petition.  But with Justice Ginsburg’s death and replacement, the calculus had changed, as the Pavan 6-member majority had been reduced to a 4-member minority of the Court.  The Supreme Court then requested the plaintiffs to file a reply to Indiana’s petition for review, and the possibility appeared that the Supreme Court might take up the issue anew.

At the heart of Indiana’s case was the contention that the presumption that a husband is the father is reality-based in biology, and there is no such basis for a reality-based presumption for the wife of a woman who gives birth, although the 7th Circuit had observed that one of the lesbian couples in the case comprised two biological mothers, as the second mother had donated the egg that was gestated by the birth mother.

Be that as it may, Indiana, in common with other states, has never treated the father’s parental status as conclusive, since it could be rebutted by evidence that a different man was the biological father, and ultimately a birth certificate records legal parentage, not biological parentage, as in the new birth certificates that are issued upon a child’s adoption.  The trial court, and ultimately the 7th Circuit, related that Indiana relied on self-reporting by the mother in determining a man’s name to record on a birth certificate, and the form the birth mother is given asks for the name of the father, not explicitly the name of the biological father, making it likely that many men are named as fathers on birth certificates despite the lack of a biological tie to the child.

Ultimately, wrote the 7th Circuit, “The district court’s order requiring Indiana to recognize the children of these plaintiffs as legitimate children, born in wedlock, and to identify both wives in each union as parents, is affirmed.”

By refusing to review this ruling, without any explanation or dissent by the conservative justices, the Supreme Court seems to have put the seal on this issue.  This is particularly reassuring in light of gratuituous comments by Justice Alito (joined by Justice Thomas) in a statement he issued when the Court refused to review former Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’s petition to review an award of damages against her for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Obergefell decision was announced.  Davis v. Ermold, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3709, 2020 WL 588157 (October 5). In Alito’s statement, and remarks he later delivered to a conservative public forum, Alito sharply criticized the Obergefell decision and suggested that the Court needed to “fix” the problems that ruling created for those with religious objections to same-sex marriage.  This focused renewed attention on the Henderson case and the possibility that the Court would take it and rule in a way that would detract from the equal legal status of same-sex marriages.  The decision not to take this case may represent an important bullet dodged for now.

Michigan Claims Court Issues Split Ruling on State’s Public Accommodations Law

Posted on: December 13th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher M. Murray issued an opinion on December 7 in Rouch World v. Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Court of Claims Case No. 20-000145-MZ, holding that the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), which, among other things, prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers because of their sex, cannot be interpreted by his court as banning sexual orientation discrimination, because the state’s Court of Appeals rejected the argument that sexual orientation discrimination is covered by the Act in a 1993 ruling.

On the other hand, finding that there is no Michigan court ruling on whether the ELCRA’s sex discrimination ban can be applied to discrimination against transgender people, Judge Murray followed the Supreme Court’s June 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731, which interpreted the federal ban on sex discrimination in employment to apply to claims of discrimination based on transgender status.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that she would appeal Murray’s ruling as to sexual orientation discrimination, while the business that faces a gender identity discrimination claim announced that it would appeal that ruling.

Murray’s opinion concerned discrimination claims against two businesses.  Rouch World, an events venue that rents space for weddings and other celebrations, refused to book an event for a same-sex couple, citing the owners’ religious objections to same-sex marriages.  Uprooted Electrolysis, which provides permanent hair-removal treatment, turned down a transgender person seeking their service as part of her transition, also citing religious objections.

In both cases, the rejected customers filed complaints with MDCR, which began investigations pursuant to its Interpretative Statement 2018-1, which states that the ELCRA can be interpreted to cover such claims.  In both cases, the businesses subsequently filed suit in the Court of Claims, arguing that the Department does not have jurisdiction over sexual orientation and gender identity claims, and even if it did, that their religious objections privileged them to deny the services.  The plaintiffs asked the court to put an end to the investigations.

Judge Murray explained that the ELCRA does not define the word “sex” as used in the provision applicable to claims of discrimination by “a place of public accommodation,” which includes businesses selling goods or services to the public.  In 1993, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Barbour v. Department of Social Services, 497 N.W. 2d 216, that “harassment or discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation is not an activity proscribed by the Act.”  That decision is binding on trial courts in Michigan.  Judge Murray explained that “whether Barbour’s reasoning is no longer valid in light of Bostock v. Clayton County, and cases containing similar reasoning, is a matter for the Court of Appeals, not this court.”  Consequently, Attorney General Nessel, herself an out lesbian who helped persuade the Department to issue Interpretative Statement 2018-1, will appeal this part of the ruling to the Court of Appeals.

On the other hand, Murray found no prior opinion by a Michigan court addressing the question of whether gender identity discrimination claims are covered by the ELCRA.  Lacking such authority, Michigan courts will look to decisions concerning other statutes with similar language as well as federal rulings for interpretative guidance.  This brings the Bostock decision into play.

Significantly, the Michigan Supreme Court recently vacated a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in a case under the ethnic intimidation statute for reconsideration in light of Bostock.  In that case, People v. Rogers, 331 Mich. App. 12, vacated, 950 N.W. 2d 48 (2020), the Court of Appeals ruled that the ethnic intimidation statute’s listing of sex does not cover hate crimes against transgender people.  The Michigan Supreme Court told the Court of Appeals to reconsider that ruling in light of Bostock, a clear signal that the Michigan court is prepared to treat the Bostock decision as a persuasive precedent for interpreting the state’s sex discrimination laws.

“Following the Bostock Court’s rationale,” wrote Murray, “if defendants determine that a  person treated someone who ‘identifies’ with a gender different than the gender that he or she was born as, then that is dissimilar treatment on the basis of sex, and they are entitled to redress that violation through the existing MDCR procedures.  Nothing in the ELCRA would preclude that action.”

The bottom line of Judge Murray’s decision is that the Department does not have jurisdiction of the sexual orientation discrimination claim against Rouch World unless the Michigan Court of Appeals decides to overrule its old Barbour decision, but that the Department does have jurisdiction to investigate Uprooted Electrolysis’s denial of service to a transgender client, at least so far as interpretation of the ELCRA goes.  Of course, the Supreme Court’s remand in the ethnic intimidation case is likely to persuade the Court of Appeals that it should also reconsider Barbour in light of Bostock.

The court refrained from ruling on the religious exemption claims, stating that issue “has not been sufficiently briefed to resolve at this juncture.”  The question of federal constitutional religious exemptions from compliance with state or local anti-discrimination laws is now before the U.S. Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which was argued on November 4 and will be decided sometime in 2021.  It is likely that many state agencies and courts dealing with religious exemption claims by civil rights defendants may delay ruling on such claims until the Supreme Court rules in Fulton.

Judge Murray ended his opinion by stating, “This is not a final order as it does not resolve all of the pending issues in this case.”  This cryptic remark implies that Uprooted Electrolysis may not immediately appeal the court’s determination that the ELCRA applies to the transgender discrimination claim, since its religious exemption claim has not yet been ruled upon.  However, the declaration that the MDCR does not have jurisdiction over the sexual orientation claim against Rouch World seems final as to that complaint, so Attorney General Nessel may be able to appeal that ruling.

Supreme Court May Address Parental Presumption for Children of Married Lesbians This Term

Posted on: November 26th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

Now that there is a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it is possible that the Court will begin a process of cutting back on marriage equality.  This is at least one interpretation of the Court’s request for additional briefing on a cert petition filed by the state of Indiana in Box v. Henderson, No. 19-1385, seeking review of the 7th Circuit’s January 17, 2020, decision in Henderson v. Box, 947 F.3d 482, in which the court of appeals applied the Supreme Court’s rulings in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) and Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), to rule that a state must apply the parental presumption regarding newborn children regardless of the sex of the birth mother’s spouse, if it always applies the presumption when the birth mother’s spouse is male.

When the petition was filed with the Court in June, the Respondents (same-sex mothers challenging the state’s policy) waived their right to file a response, apparently assuming that the Court would not be interested in revisiting an issue that it had decided per curiam with only three dissenting votes as recently as June 2017.   The petition was circulated to the justices for their conference of September 29, which would be held the week after the death on September 18 of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was part of the Pavan v. Smith majority.  Another member of that majority who is no longer on the Court is Anthony M. Kennedy, whose retirement led to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment.  By the time the Court was to hold its conference on  the 29th, it was clear that Trump would nominate a conservative replacement for Ginsburg and that the Senate would rush to confirm the nominee to fulfil Trump’s goal to ensure a 6-3 Republican conservative majority on the Court in case he sought to contest adverse election results.

Evidently the Box v. Henderson petition, lacking a responsive filing, caught the eyes of one or more of the conservative justices, who had the Clerk of the Court send a request to the plaintiffs to file a responding brief, which was filed on November 10.  On November 23, the state of Indiana filed a Reply brief, which provided a news hook for media to report on November 24 that the new conservative majority might take up the case as a vehicle to cut back on marriage equality by holding that a state may decide that it is not required to presume that the wife of a birth mother is the other parent for purposes of officially recording the birth.

An argument that has been persuasive to lower courts, apart from the “equal treatment” for same-sex marriages statements in Obergefell and Pavan, is that states have applied the presumption in favor of the husbands of birth mothers even when it was clear that the husband was not the biological father, as for example when donor sperm was used to inseminate the wife with the husband’s consent, or when the husband and wife were geographically separated when the wife became pregnant.  Thus, under existing policies in many states, the parental presumption has not been limited to cases in which it was rational to assume that the birth mother’s husband was the child’s biological father.  In this connection, even if Chief Justice Roberts, part of the per curiam majority in Pavan despite his dissent in Obergefell, sticks with his vote in Pavan, there are now five conservatives to vote the other way, two of whom joined Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent in Pavan asserting that the issue was not decided simply on the basis of Obergefell.

With the filing of the state’s reply brief, the Petition has been redistributed for the Court’s conference of December 11.  Sometimes the Court rolls over cert Petitions for many conferences before reaching a decision whether to grant review.  If the Court grants certiorari before the end of January, the case would likely be argued during the current term and decided by the end of June. A later grant would most likely be argued during the October 2021 Term.

Counsel listed on the Respondents’ Brief in Opposition include Karen Celestino-Horseman (Counsel of Record) of Austin & Jones, P.C., Indianapolis; attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights (Catherine Sakimura, Shannon Minter, and Christopher Stoll), San Francisco; Douglas Hallward-Driemeier of Ropes & Gray LLP, Washington (who was one of the oral advocates in the Obergefell case); Joshua E. Goldstein, also of Ropes & Gray LLP, Boston office; Raymond L. Faust, of Norris Choplin Schroeder LLP, Indianapolis, William R. Groth of Vlink Law Firm LLC, Indianapolis; and Richard Andrew Mann and Megal L. Gehring, of Mann Law, P.C., Indianapolis.  Several same-sex couples joined in this case, resulting in several Indianapolis law firms being involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court May Decide Another Gay Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: October 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Melissa and Aaron Klein, proprietors of the now-defunct “Sweetcakes by Melissa” custom-cake business in Gresham, Oregon, filed a petition for certiorari on October 19, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the $135,000 penalty imposed by Oregon authorities for their refusal to make a wedding cake for Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman in January 2013. Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. ____ , seeking review of Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 410 P.3d 1051, 289 Or. App. 507 (2017), rev. denied by Oregon Supreme Court, June 21, 2018.  The Kleins claim in their Petition that the Oregon ruling violates their constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

The Kleins also claim that they did not discriminate against the lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation, contrary to the finding of the Commission that was affirmed by the state appeals court. And, perhaps most consequentially, they asked the Supreme Court to consider whether to overrule Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, which holds that the Free Exercise Clause does not exempt people with religious objections from complying with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religious practices.

The Kleins ask the Court to revisit a controversy it confronted last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  Both Oregon and Colorado forbid businesses in the state from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation.  In Masterpiece, baker Jack Phillips refused, initially on religious grounds, to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple, and Colorado officials found that he had violated the law, rejecting his First Amendment defense.  In his appeal of the Colorado Court of Appeals’ ruling affirming the Commission, Phillips asserted protection under both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, claiming that the government may not compel a “cake artist” to express a message contrary to his religious beliefs, both as a matter of freedom not to speak and protection for religious freedom.

The Court did not rule directly on these questions in disposing of Phillips’ appeal, instead deciding that comments by some of the Colorado Civil Rights Commissioners, and the Commission’s rejection of some other discrimination claims filed by a provocateur who charged bakers with discriminating against him by refusing to make explicitly anti-gay cakes, showed that the state had not afforded an appropriately “neutral forum” to Phillips for consideration of his defense. On that basis, the Court reversed the state court and commission rulings and dismissed the case against Phillips.  However, in his opinion for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy reaffirmed that people and businesses do not enjoy a general free exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religion.  Kennedy’s opinion avoided dealing with Phillips’ argument that as a “cake artist” he also had a valid free speech claim.  Two justices dissented, while others concurred in the result.

Justice Kennedy cited Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400 (1968), to support the Free Exercise point.  In that case, a restaurant owner cited his religious beliefs to refuse to comply with Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids businesses affecting commerce from refusing to serve customers because of their race.  The Supreme Court affirmed the 4th Circuit, which had reversed the district court’s refusal to enjoin the restaurant’s discriminatory policy.  Kennedy could have just as well cited Employment Division v. Smith, which the Colorado Commission’s Administrative Law Judge had cited in his Masterpiece ruling, but Piggie Park may have seemed more apposite, as it involved enforcement of a general anti-discrimination law over religious objections. Smith, by contrast, involved a Native American man who had consumed peyote in a religious ritual and subsequently flunked his employer’s drug test, suffering discharge and denial of unemployment benefits.  The Supreme Court rejected Smith’s religious freedom challenge to his disqualification for benefits, finding that the incidental burden this posed on his free exercise of religion did not excuse him from complying with his employer’s lawful policy against employee drug use or require that an exception be made to the state’s unemployment insurance law, which denies benefits to employees discharged “for cause.” In a concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch (joined by Justice Clarence Thomas) described the Smith ruling as “controversial,” implying that it deserved reconsideration.

The Kleins have followed up on Gorsuch’s signal by asking the Court to reconsider Smith or, alternatively, to “reaffirm” some comments Justice Antonin Scalia made in his opinion for the 5-4 Court majority in Smith, suggesting that when somebody raises a free exercise of religion claim in a case that also implicates “other fundamental rights,” such as freedom of speech, the Court should apply “strict scrutiny” to the challenged state action in order to vindicate the other fundamental right.  The Klein’s Petition points out that lower federal courts are divided about whether to follow Scalia’s suggestion for handling so-called “hybrid rights” cases – a suggestion the Oregon Court of Appeals expressly rejected in the Kleins’ case — and urges the Court to resolve a split of lower court authority by taking this case.

The Klein’s Petition also argues that they did not discriminate against Cryer and Bowman because of their sexual orientation; they would refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer who sought this service. They related that just a few years earlier, they had produced a wedding cake ordered by this very lesbian couple, to celebrate the marriage of Rachel’s mother to a man, and that it was because Rachel and Laurel “liked the Kleins’ work so much that they wanted to commission a custom cake from Sweetcakes for their own wedding.”  The Petition also notes that the women quickly found another baker to make their wedding cake, and that a celebrity chef even gave them a second custom-designed cake for free.

On the other hand, it was reported that when the Kleins posted about the discrimination claim on their Facebook.com page, showing the image of the actual discrimination charge with contact information for the lesbian couple, the women received nasty messages, including death threats, which contributed to the Oregon Bureau’s decision to assess substantial damages for emotional distress.

The Kleins devote a large part of their Petition to arguing that they are “cake artists” whose creations are expressive works, entitling them to the same vigorous constitutional free speech protection normally provided to artists in less digestible media. As such, they claim the Oregon court erred in failing to apply strict scrutiny to the Bureau’s decision against them, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects an individual’s refusal to speak a message with which they disagree, the prime example being the Court’s unanimous decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), in which, overruling a 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the Court held that parade organizers had a right to exclude a group whose message they did not desire to include in their parade, which the Court deemed to be a “quintessential expressive association.”  Whether the Court is willing to deem baking a wedding cake the free speech equivalent of staging a parade with thousands of people on a state holiday is an interesting question.

If the Court grants the Petition, the most consequential issue could be the Kleins’ challenge to Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court cast aside decades of First Amendment precedent to hold that general laws that place a heavy burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion must generally be obeyed nonetheless.  Under prior rulings, the government had the heavy burden of meeting the “compelling government interest” test in order to justify applying a general law that incidentally but substantially burdened somebody’s free exercise of religion.

Justice Gorsuch was correct in calling Smith a “controversial” decision. Congress was so incensed by Justice Scalia’s opinion (which drew dissents from liberal members of the Court) that a bipartisan coalition soon passed the first version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), introduced by Chuck Schumer (House) and Ted Kennedy (Senate) and eagerly signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993.  RFRA provided that any law imposing a substantial burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion could be challenged using the strict scrutiny standard.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Congress did not have authority to overrule the Court’s constitutional ruling, but the Court later upheld a revised version of RFRA that applied only to federal laws that burden religious free exercise, holding that Congress could create a legislative exception to federal laws when they incidentally impose a substantial burden on religious exercise.  Federal RFRA provided the example for more than twenty states to pass their own versions, similarly restricting the application of their state and local laws.  State court decisions in several other states have interpreted their state constitutional religious freedom provisions to the same effect, rejecting the Supreme Court’s narrower interpretation of Free Exercise in Smith.

If the Supreme Court were to overrule Smith and restore the previous precedents, RFRA and its state counterparts would be rendered superfluous, as the First Amendment would once more restrict states from enforcing general laws that substantially burden a person or business’s free exercise of religion in the absence of a compelling state interest.  The impact on LGBT rights could be enormous, prompting new claims that application of anti-discrimination laws to people and businesses with religious objections to LGBT people violates the businesses’ constitutional rights – one of the claims the Kleins are pursuing in this case.

Oregon state officials have thirty days to file a response to the Petition, and Petitioners can file a Reply to the Response, which means that the Supreme Court’s file in the case will not be completed for consideration by the Court until at least early December and maybe longer if the Oregon Attorney General’s Office requests an extension of time to respond. But if the petition is granted in December, that would leave plenty of time for the Court to hear arguments and render a decision during its current term, which runs through the end of June.

Supreme Court Rejects Gay Death Row Inmate’s Appeal

Posted on: June 18th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court has denied a petition from South Dakota gay death row inmate Charles Russell Rhines, who challenges the fairness of his death sentence in light of evidence that some jurors were taking anti-gay stereotypes into account while determining his sentence. In line with its normal practice, the Supreme Court merely listed the case as “certiorari denied” without an explanation on June 18.  Rhines v. South Dakota, 2018 WL 2102800 (No. 17-8791).

Rhines was convicted on murder and burglary charges in January 1993. His homosexuality featured in the testimony of several witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial.  Rhines was charged with viciously hacking to death a man who blundered onto the crime scene where Rhines was committing a burglary.  After Rhines was convicted, the court took evidence on the penalty phase, which included testimony by one of Rhines’ sisters that he was gay and had “struggled with his sexual identity.”

The jury began deliberating on the penalty on the afternoon of January 25, and sent out a lengthy note to the judge early on January 26. “In order to award the proper punishment we need a clear perspective on what ‘Life in Prison Without Parole’ really means.  We know what the Death Penalty means, but we have no clue as to the reality of Life Without Parole.  The questions we have are as follows: 1. Will Mr. Rhines ever be placed in a minimum security prison or be given work release.  2.  Will Mr. Rhines be allowed to mix with the general inmate population.  3. Allowed to create a group of followers or admirers.  4. Will Mr. Rhines be allowed to discuss, describe or brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and or young men jailed for lesser crimes (ex: Drugs, DWI, assault, etc.).  5.  Will Mr. Rhines be allowed to marry or have conjugal visits.  6.  Will he be allowed to attend college.  7. Will Mr. Rhines be allowed to have or attain any of the common joys of life (ex TV, Radio, Music, Telephone or hobbies and other activities allowing him distraction from his punishment.) 8. Will Mr. Rhines be jailed alone or will he have a cellmate.  9.  What sort of free time will Mr. Rhines have (what would his daily routine be).  We are sorry, Your Honor, if any of these questions are inappropriate but there seems to be a huge gulf between our two alternatives.  On one hand there is Death, and on the other hand what is life in prison w/out parole.”  The judge responded by telling the jury that “all the information I can give you is set forth in the jury instructions” and he refused a defense request to tell the jury not to base its decision “on speculation or guesswork.”  Eight hours later, the jury returned a death sentence.

Seizing upon these questions, Rhines appealed his sentence arguing that the jury acted under the influence of passion, prejudice, and other arbitrary factors, but the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed his sentence, relying on statements by the potential jurors during the selection process that they could be fair, and the court’s view that none of the questions in the note reflected anti-gay bias.

Still on death row a quarter century later, and having failed in every attempt so far to get post-conviction relief from the state or federal courts, Rhines took new hope from a decision issued by the Supreme Court on March 6, 2017, Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855 (2017). In that case, the Court recognized an exception to the general rule against inquiring into a jury’s decision-making process or allowing jurors to testify about how bias may have affected the process, finding that the 6th Amendment right to a fair trial requires an exception to the rule “where a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant.”

In his newest appeals, Rhines sought to introduce affidavits (sworn statements) from several jurors indicating that Rhines’ homosexuality appeared to contribute to the jury’s decision for the death penalty. According to Rhines’ petition to the Supreme Court, one juror referred to Rhines as “that SOB queer,” and that this made other jurors “fairly uncomfortable.”  A juror swore, “One of the witnesses talked about how they walked in on Rhines fondling a man in a motel room bed.  I got the sense it was a sexual assault situation and not a relationship between two men.”  This juror continued that if sentenced to life in prison, Rhines might be “a sexual threat to other inmates and take advantage of other young men in or outside of prison.”  One juror swore that the jury “also knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.”  A juror declared that “one juror made a comment that if he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life without the possibility of parole].”  Yet a third juror said, “There was lots of discussion of homosexuality.  There was a lot of disgust. This is a farming community.  There were lots of folks who were like, Ew, I can’t believe that.”

Responding to the affidavits, the state got an investigator to interview nine of the jurors. Although they denied that they had based the death sentence on Rhines’s homosexuality, their interviews with the investigators yielded more evidence tending to support Rhines’ contentions.  For example, one of the jurors “recalled a comment to the effect that Rhines might like life in the penitentiary with other men,” while another said that “one juror made a joke that Rhines might enjoy a life in prison where he would be among so many men.”

Rhines argued that when these sworn juror statements were viewed together with the questions posed by the note, it became clear the his homosexuality was a factor in the jury’s determination of his death sentence, and that this violated his right to be tried by an unbiased jury on the issue of sexual orientation.

In Pena-Rodriguez, the Court had emphasized that race discrimination raises particularly strong issues, and did not state that exceptions to the usual rule should be made for all possible kinds of bias. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said that racial bias “implicates unique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.” The vote in the Court, reduced to eight members as the Senate Republican leadership stonewalled against President Obama’s nomination of appeals court judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat vacated by Justice Scalia’s death, was 5-3, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas dissenting.  Kennedy was joined by the four Democratic appointees, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor.

In reopening his case with a new round of state court and federal appeals following the Pena-Rodriguez opinion, Rhines hoped to persuade the court to recognize a broader exception to extend, at least, to sexual orientation, and further to extend it to the penalty phase of the jury’s deliberations. (Pena-Rodriguez went to the issue of racial bias influencing the jury to reach a guilty verdict, and did not rule on whether a challenge focused solely on the penalty phase should invoke the same exception.)  The lower courts were unwilling to take up the issue, seeing Pena-Rodriguez as adopting a narrow exception to the general rule, based on the special concerns raised by race discrimination, and many of Rhines’ disappointments were due to procedural issues blocking the courts from considering this new argument.

The Supreme Court’s denial of review is not a ruling on the merits, and could well have been due to the same procedural complications that caused lower courts to reject Rhines’ new attempt to reopen his case. However, it is possible that lower courts may construe it as reinforcing the narrowness of the exception created in Pena-Rodriguez.  Meanwhile, on May 25 the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals filed an Order denying Rhines’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus, also seeking to reopen the jury verdict.

Federal Court Ruling on “Religious Exemptions” from Anti-Discrimination Laws on Same-Sex Weddings May Preview Supreme Court Decision

Posted on: September 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota ruled in Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, 2017 WL 4179899, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153014 (D. Minn., Sept. 20, 2017), that for-profit businesses do not enjoy a constitutional right to refuse to provide their services for same-sex weddings on the same basis that they provide services for different-sex weddings.  Turning back a case brought by the anti-gay religious litigation organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Judge Tunheim issued a comprehensive ruling that may provide a preview of what the U.S. Supreme Court will say in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case from Colorado during its forthcoming term, at least regarding the 1st Amendment issues common to both of the cases.

ADF immediately announced that it will appeal the court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Judge Tunheim’s ruling is particularly significant because it is the first by a federal court to address this issue. Since 2013, several state appellate courts have ruling against such exemptions from compliance with state anti-discrimination laws, rejecting appeals by defendants who sought to overturn rulings against them by state human rights agencies in cases involving wedding photographers, florists, bakers, and wedding venues.  In this case, however, a videography business that claimed to be planning to expand into the wedding video business sought an advance declaration from the federal court that they would be constitutionally protected if they were threatened with prosecution under Minnesota’s ban on public accommodations discrimination because of sexual orientation.

This issue has previously avoided litigation in the federal courts because there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination because of sex or sexual orientation by businesses providing goods or services to the public. When “sex” was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination through a floor amendment to the pending Civil Rights Act in Congress in 1964, the amendment was directed solely to the employment discrimination section of the bill.  The public accommodations section was not amended to include “sex”.  The Equality Act bill first introduced in Congress two years ago would add both “sex” and “sexual orientation” to that part of the Civil Rights Act.

The state rulings all came in cases where businesses were being prosecuted under a state law. Because these are local businesses operating in the same jurisdiction where the plaintiffs live, there was no basis for the defendants to remove them to federal court, since the federal constitutional arguments were raised as defenses, and federal “removal” jurisdiction is based either on diversity of citizenship of the parties or a federal question being raised by the plaintiff in the complaint.

This case was brought by ADF on behalf of Carl and Angel Larsen and their company, Telescope Media Group, which specializes in producing videos for a fee. They are interested in expanding their business to include wedding videos.  They strongly oppose same-sex marriage, and one of their goals in expanding their business is to propagate their view that only a marriage between a man and a woman is appropriate by including in every contract they make a provision by which the couple purchasing the video gives Telescope Media the right to provide public access to the video through their website and postings on social media.  Thus, their mission in expanding into the wedding video business is not just to make money but also to promote different-sex marriage, which they consider to be an institution that is endangered by social changes such as the marriage equality movement.  They also want to be able to include a notice on their website that they do not provide video services for same-sex marriages.

The Minnesota public accommodations law was amended in 1993 to add “sexual orientation” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. After Minnesota’s legislature enacted a marriage equality law in 2013, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) published an “interpretive guidance” for businesses covered by the law, stating clearly that the state law “does not exempt individuals, businesses, nonprofits, or the secular business activities of religious entities from non-discrimination laws based on religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.”  The guidance makes clear that people denied services by such businesses could file discrimination charges with the agency, which could result in penalties for violation of the law.

ADF alleged in its complaint that Telescope Media has already been contacted by at least one same-sex couple seeking video services for their wedding, but they were told that Telescope Media does not do wedding videos. This is legal, since they are not discriminating between same-sex and different-sex couples.  They claim they want to get into this potentially lucrative business, but are concerned about exposing themselves to legal liability, and seek the shelter of a declaratory judgment that they are privileged to turn down same-sex wedding business.

ADF came up with seven legal theories in support of their claim to constitutional protection, based on the 1st and 14th Amendments. They claimed that any legal requirement that they must provide services to same-sex couples would violate their rights to freedom of speech, expressive association, free exercise of religion, equal protection of the laws, and both procedural and substantive due process.  Their freedom of speech argument subdivides into the freedom to advertise their wedding video business as available only to different-sex couples, and their freedom not to be compelled to produce wedding videos that celebrate same-sex marriages and thus communicate a message of approval that contradicts their religious-inspired views.  The court rejected their argument that under the Minnesota law they could be compelled to display publicly any same-sex marriage videos that they might produce.

Judge Tunheim carefully and systematically rejected all of their arguments, citing extensively to U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with comparable situations. Before tackling the substantive issues, he had to deal with whether this lawsuit was an attempt to get an advisory opinion, which is beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts.  In this case, the fact that the MDHR has announced in advance its view that declining same-sex marriage business would violate the Human Rights Act helped to convince the court that prosecution of Telescope Media if it implemented its business plan was not merely theoretical.  If they have a constitutional right, the existence of the law and the agency’s intention to enforce it back their claim that they are being deterred from potentially exercising a constitutional right by expanding their business.  Thus, Tunheim rejected the argument by the state’s attorneys that the court had no jurisdiction over the case, since there is a real “case or controversy,” not a purely hypothetical case.

Turning to the merits, however, Judge Tunheim agreed with the growing body of state court appellate decisions that have rejected these constitutional arguments, for all the reasons that have been cited in those cases.

The court found that the MDHR is not a content-based regulation of speech, does not target religion, is subject only to intermediate scrutiny under 1st and 14th Amendment principles, and is sustained by the state’s important interest in preventing discrimination by businesses providing goods and services to the public.

Judge Tunheim rejected ADF’s argument that requiring a business to make wedding videos for same-sex couples if they make them for different-sex couples would violate the prohibition against government-compelled speech.   “Where a business provides a ‘conduit’ that allows others to pay for speech,” as in the case where the business makes an expressive product like a video for monetary compensation, “strict scrutiny is usually unnecessary because there is ‘little risk’ of compelled speech or that the public will attribute the message to that of the speaker,” he wrote.  “Further, courts generally do not find compelled speech where the speaker may easily disclaim the message of its customers.”

“The law does not compel the Larsens to speak a specific government message,” he continued, “unlike the message on the license plate in Wooley or the words of the pledge of allegiance in Barnette,” referring to cases where the Supreme Court held that a state cannot compel a person to display a political message on his license plate or to speak the flag salute against his will.  “The law does not dictate how the Larsens carry out any of their creative decisions regarding filming and editing.  While the law does incidentally require wedding videographers to make videos they might not want to make, the concerns undergirding the application of the compelled speech doctrine to instances of hosting another’s message are immaterial.”

At the heart of his analysis was the simple proposition that “speech-for-hire is commonly understood to reflect the views of the customer. Weddings are expressive events showcasing the messages and preference of the people getting married and attendees, who do things like speak, dress, and decorate in certain ways.  A video of a wedding depicts this expressive event, and while videographers may exercise creative license to fashion such a video, the videographer is a ‘conduit’ for communication of the speech and expression taking place at the wedding.”

Further, he pointed out, the Larsens can always post an announcement on their website stating that they are complying with the law by making videos of same-sex weddings, but that they are opposed to same-sex marriage. This sets their case apart from Hurley, the Supreme Court case holding that Massachusetts could not compel parade organizers to include a gay group if the organizers did not want to send a gay rights message through their parade.  Finally, he pointed out, making wedding videos for same-sex couples would not impede the Larsens’ ability to propagate their own message.  They would not be required to exhibit these videos on their website or place them on social media, as the court found that the MDHR would not be interpreted to impose such a requirement.

The court held that the ability of the MDHR to decide whom to prosecute under the statute did not destroy its content-neutral character, and that requiring Telescope Media to afford equal access to its services for same-sex weddings did not violate its right of expressive association. Indeed, ADF’s argument on this issue would undermine all anti-discrimination laws, were a court to accept the argument that every interaction with a potential customer could be avoided on grounds of “forced association.”  Historically-mind people may recall that then-Professor Robert Bork opposed the public accommodations provisions of the proposed Civil Rights Act in 1964 by describing the proposition that forcing businesses to provide services to people of color as one of “surpassing ugliness” because it would force people into unwanted personal associations.  These sorts of views led to the defeat of Bork’s nomination by President Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1987.

Because the judge found the Minnesota Human Rights Act to be content-neutral as far as religion goes, it easily rejected the idea that evenhanded application of the law would constitute a violation of free exercise, and it similarly rejected the argument that the law imposed an “unconstitutional condition” on the Larsen’s ability to conduct business in Minnesota. Because the law applied to all videography businesses, there was no viable Equal Protection claim.  Similarly, there was no viable procedural due process claim since the law’s prohibition was not unduly vague, and its use of the phrase “legitimate business purposes” to describe circumstances under which a business could refuse to provide a service to a consumer had a well-established legal meaning that would not leave reasonable people guessing as to the scope of their legal obligations.

Finally, having found that the law did not unconstitutionally abridge any of the Larsen’s substantive constitutional rights, the court easily concluded that it did not violate the 14th Amendment’s substantive due process protection for individual liberty. The court found that there is no recognized “fundamental right to work or operate a business free from regulations that one dislikes.  Absent some authority to the contrary, the Court declines to expand the reach of substantive due process to these facts, as the doctrine is ‘reserved for truly egregious and extraordinary cases,’” citing several U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the scope of substantive due process doctrine.

Judge Tunheim found that the state’s attorneys had “met their burden to demonstrate that Counts I-VII in the Amended Complaint all fail as a matter of law,” so there is nothing left to litigate and the court granted the state’s motion to dismiss the complaint.

ADF’s appeal to the 8th Circuit is unlikely to result in a quick decision, because the Supreme Court will soon schedule oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which presents many of the same issues.  This is an appeal of a ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the Cakeshop and its proprietor, Jack Philips, violated the state’s human rights law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious objections to same-sex marriages.  The hearing will probably take place later this year, with a decision expected in the spring of 2018.

The 8th Circuit may decide to follow the same procedure it followed in 2014 and 2015 when it received state appeals from district court marriage equality rulings while a similar case from the 6th Circuit was pending in the Supreme Court. The 8th Circuit put the appeals “on hold” to see what the Supreme Court would do, and then after the Obergefell ruling it simply followed the Supreme Court’s lead, as it would be required to do by precedent.

However, because ADF has alleged various legal theories that were not advanced in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, a Supreme Court ruling in that case may not definitively answer all the questions raised in Telescope Media, so it is possible that the 8th Circuit will find this case different enough to justify going forward without waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling.