The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts (a George Bush appointee), and the four Justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Barack Obama).
Samuel Alito, appointed to the Court by George Bush, wrote an outraged dissenting opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush. Trump-appointee Brett Kavanaugh penned a more temperate dissent, concluding with a surprising salute to the movement’s achievement of this milestone.
Justice Gorsuch’s emergence as the writer of this opinion caught many by surprise, since he is an acolyte of Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he replaced on the Court. Despite Scalia’s avowed commitment to many of the interpretive principles that Gorsuch also embraces, one could not imagine Scalia writing such an opinion, especially in light of the vitriolic dissenting opinions that he wrote to all four prior landmark opinions.
Because Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority of the Court, he was in the position to assign the majority opinion to Gorsuch. Had this been a 5-4 ruling without Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, the senior justice in the majority, would have decided which justice would write for the Court. In the two marriage equality rulings, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose approach to gay issues had been established in earlier cases, assigned the opinions to himself as senior justice in the majority. Ginsburg might well have assigned the opinion to Gorsuch in any event, to help secure his vote, especially as it was possible that if Ginsburg or one of the other Democratic appointees wrote an opinion embracing arguments Gorsuch could not accept, he might either drift away or write a concurrence in the judgment, resulting in a plurality opinion. It is even possible that Roberts’ vote came from his institutional concern that such a significant ruling have the weight of a 6-3 vote. Since there were already five votes in favor of the employee parties, his vote would not affect the outcome, but would give him some control over the opinion through his assignment to Gorsuch.
The 1996 landmark gay rights ruling was Romer v. Evans, a decision that established for the first time that a state’s discrimination against “homosexuals” violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, striking down a homophobic amendment that Colorado voters had added to their state constitution, forbidding the state from providing anti-discrimination protection to gay people. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a 6-3 Court found that the only explanation for the Colorado amendment’s adoption was animus against lesbians and gay men, never a constitutionally valid reason, so the Court did not expressly consider whether heightened scrutiny would apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
The second landmark decision was Lawrence v. Texas (2003), declaring that a state law making gay sex a crime violated the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, and overruling a 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had rejected such a challenge to Georgia’s penal law.
The third landmark, United States v. Windsor, held in 2013 that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that states had authorized, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had put into the United States Code a definition of marriage limited to different-sex couples. The Court held that this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection rights of same-sex couples under the 5th Amendment, again without explicitly engaging in discussion of whether a law discriminating based on sexual orientation is subject to heightened scrutiny.
The fourth landmark, Obergefell v. Hodges, held in 2015 that gay people enjoyed the same fundamental right to marry that had previously been guaranteed to straight people under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Since the Court dealt with this as a fundamental rights case, both from the perspectives of due process and equal protection, it again avoided discussing whether the discriminatory aspect of the case implicated a suspect or quasi-suspect classification of sexual orientation.
In each of these cases, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., wrote for the Court. The decisions were noteworthy as being the product of an otherwise conservative Court whose Republican appointees outnumbered the Democratic appointees. In Windsor and Obergefell, Kennedy was the only Republican appointee to side with the Democratic appointees to make up the 5-4 majority of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, cast a sixth vote for the prevailing parties in Romer and Lawrence. Her replacement, Justice Alito, dissented in Windsor and Obergefell, as well as Bostock.
The Bostock decision, incorporating two other cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was the first major LGBT rights decision by the Court since Kennedy retired and Trump made his second appointment to the Court, seemingly locking in a solid conservative majority that was expected not to be so receptive to LGBT rights claims. With the retirement of Kennedy, it was widely believed that it would be unlikely for a gay rights claim to carry a majority of the Court.
Consequently, when the Court announced more than a year ago that it would review these three cases, tremors ran through the LGBT rights legal community. Although progress had been made in persuading the Obama Administration – including the EEOC – and the lower federal courts that Title VII’s ban on “discrimination because of an individual’s sex” could be interpreted to forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, it was difficult for people to count a fifth vote to add to the presumed votes of the Democratic appointees on the Court. Chief Justice Roberts had emphatically dissented from the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, and LGBT rights groups had strongly opposed the nominations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, based on their extremely conservative records as court of appeals judges, which was seemingly borne out in Gorsuch’s case by his dissent in Pavan v. Smith (2017), taking the transparently incorrect position that the Court had not clearly held in Obergefell that same-sex marriages must be treated the same as different-sex marriages for all legal purposes, including birth certificates, something specifically mentioned in Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. Nobody really thought it possible that Alito or Thomas would ever cast a vote in favor of an LGBT employee’s claim, but Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were a question marks, as was the unpredictable chief justice, despite his anti-LGBT voting record up to that time.
The only facts about these cases that were relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision were that the three employees whose discrimination claims ended up before the Court claimed that they were fired because of their sexual orientation (Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda) or their gender identity (Aimee Stephens) in violation of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. The merits of the Title VII claims had not been decided in Bostock or Zarda, because the district courts in both cases found the claims not to be covered under Title VII and dismissed them. Aimee Stephens’ Title VII claim survived a motion to dismiss, however; the district court found that although Title VII, standing alone, was violated in her case (but solely using a gender stereotype theory rather than holding the gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII), but that the employer, a deeply religious funeral home owner, had a valid defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so granted judgement to the employer. The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal in Bostock, as did a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, but the 2nd Circuit ultimately reversed the dismissal en banc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had sued on Stephens’ behalf, appealed to the 6th Circuit, which reversed the district court, finding the RFRA defense invalid, and ruling that Stephens’ gender identity discrimination claim had been proven. The 6th Circuit also rejected the district court’s conclusion that the EEOC, representing Stephens, was limited to a gender stereotyping claim, expanding on its prior precedents to hold that gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. Thus, the only final merits ruling in the cases before the Court was the EEOC’s (and Stephens’) victory in the 6th Circuit. Stephens had intervened at the 6th Circuit, represented by the ACLU, making her a respondent alongside the EEOC in the Supreme Court.
After the Trump Administration took office, the Solicitor General took over the case from the EEOC and, consistent with the Administration’s view that Title VII did not forbid gender identity discrimination, effectively “changed sides,” arguing that the employer should have prevailed. But, surprisingly inasmuch as the employer was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom litigation group, the employer had not sought review of the 6th Circuit’s rejection of its RFRA defense, so the only question before the Court was the Title VII interpretation issue. Stephens was left to defend the 6th Circuit’s ruling, with the EEOC, represented by the Solicitor General, on the other side. The Solicitor General also participated as an amicus on behalf of the government in the Bostock and Zarda cases.
There was a big difference between the earlier landmark cases and this case. The four landmarks all involved interpretations of Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection, and were decided, in sometimes quite emotional opinions by Justice Kennedy, based on concepts of human dignity and equality. The Bostock case, by contrast, was a matter solely of statutory interpretation, and solely of Title VII (despite Justice Alito’s decision to dwell on the RFRA question in his dissent). Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most ardent “textualists” on the Court, Trump’s appointees, parted company about how to apply that approach in determining the meaning of a 55-year-old statute.
Textualists contend that statutory interpretation is a matter of figuring out what the meaning of statutory language was at the time it was adopted. Extraneous information, such as congressional committee reports, hearing transcripts, speeches on the floor of Congress or statements inserted into the Congressional Record, are generally rejected by textualists, who argue, as Scalia memorably wrote in a 1998 opinion also involving Title VII and sex discrimination, that “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
Gorsuch and Kavanaugh (as well as Alito) swear allegiance to this principle, but it took them in different directions in this case. Gorsuch, who had signaled this result as a possibility during the oral argument on October 8 last year, inclined towards a literalistic approach to the words of Title VII. While claiming that he was trying to determine “the ordinary public meaning” of the words at the time they were enacted, he rejected the argument that this meant that sexual orientation and gender identity could not possibly be covered, because he was persuaded by various arguments and examples that the statute as properly understood has always prohibited discrimination against people because of their “homosexuality” or “transgender status.” He wrote, “an employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex – such as firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex – discriminates against that person in violation of Title VII.”
Having accepted that point, he found persuasive several examples offered by counsel for Bostock and Zarda. Most prominent was the example of two employees, a man and a woman, with equally good qualifications, work records, and so forth, both of whom are attracted to men. The employer will hire the woman but reject the man. Because the employer will tolerate attraction to men by women but not by men, the employer’s refusal to hire the man is discrimination because of the man’s sex.
Stating his holding more generally, he wrote: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other facts besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.” The idea is that sex is supposed to be irrelevant to a personnel decision unless, as the statute provides, the employer can prove that sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job in question, an affirmative defense provision that Gorsuch neglects to mention. But Gorsuch agreed that making a personnel decision because the person is gay or transgender makes sex relevant to the decision, and thus is generally prohibited by Title VII. Or, as he put it quite strongly, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The issue, wrote Gorsuch, is whether the plaintiff’s sex is a “but-for” cause of the challenged personnel action, but it doesn’t have to be the sole cause, because the statute does not expressly require that. “When an employer fires an employee because she is homosexual or transgender,” he explained, “two causal factors may be in play, both the individual’s sex and something else (the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies). But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” Because all three cases being argued involved discharges, it is not surprising that Gorsuch mentions only discharges, but the clear important of the decision is that all the personnel actions coming within the scope of Title VII come within this ruling.
Responding to the argument that this could not possibly be the meaning of a statute passed in 1964, Gorsuch insisted that it has always been the meaning, it just was not recognized as such by the courts until more recently. He characterized this as the “elephant in the room” that everybody pretended was not really there. It was now time to recognize the presence of the elephant.
Aside from some passing references, Gorsuch’s interpretive discussion, and the examples he presented, focused mainly on the sexual orientation issue, but he was careful to mention gender identity or transgender status as well as sexual orientation whenever he stated his conclusions.
Alito unkindly stated in his dissent that Gorsuch’s conclusion that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII is “preposterous.” Alito’s focus on the “original meaning” of statutory language, which he documents at length, shows as a matter of the historical record that in 1964 gay people were widely reviled as sick criminals, so it is impossible in his view to read the statutory language of 1964 as forbidding discrimination on this ground. Furthermore, he pointed out, as of 1964 the public’s awareness of transgender individuals was slight at best. Indeed, the very terms “transgender” and “gender identity” were not even used until much later. That a statute enacted in 1964 could be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on this ground could not possibly accord with its “ordinary public meaning” at that time, he argued. But Gorsuch countered that Alito was talking about legislative intent, not contemporary meaning of the statutory language. As Scalia wrote so often in cases where he rejected evidence of legislative history, when the law is reduced to a written text, it is the text that is the law. Gorsuch even cited a few sources to suggest that some people at or near the time of enactment actually believed that gay or transgender people might have discrimination claims under Title VII.
“Ours is a society of written laws,” Gorsuch wrote. “Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Reading Alito’s dissenting opinion may induce nausea in the reader, so graphic is his recounting of the horrendously homophobic views of the government and the public towards LGBT people in 1964, but he recites them to make his point that prohibition of discrimination on these grounds could not possibly be a correct textualist interpretation of this language from his perspective. He started his dissent pointedly by saying that the Court was engaged in “legislation,” not interpretation. And he concentrated on shooting holes in Gorsuch’s examples of the situations that led Gorsuch to conclude that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgender identity is, at least in part, sex discrimination.
Alito also wandered far from the central question in the cases, interjecting discussion of various issues likely to arise as a result of the decision, such as hardship for employers with religious objections to homosexuality or transgender identity (such as the employer in the Harris Funeral Homes case), and objections by co-workers to transgender employees using bathrooms and locker rooms. Gorsuch rejoined that these were questions for another day, not presently relevant to decide the appeals before the Court, noting particularly that Harris Funeral Homes had not asked the Court to review the 6th Circuit’s decision rejecting its RFRA defense. Alito was definitely putting down markers for the future cases that the Court may confront.
Kavanaugh makes some of the same points as Alito in his dissenting opinion, but it is notable that he did not join Alito’s dissent. This may be at least in part a generational thing. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are considerably younger than Alito. By the time they were in college and law school, there were out gay people around and, on a personal level, they undoubtedly both agreed that as a matter of politics it would be appropriate for Congress to ban such discrimination. They just differed on whether the Court could reach the same result through interpretation of the 55-year old law. Kavanaugh noted that three-judge panels of ten circuit courts of appeals had rejected this interpretation. 30 judges out of 30, he wrote, more than once in his opinion, as if the unanimity of an incorrect interpretation somehow turned it into a correct interpretation. Obviously, these judges did not recognize the “elephant in the room”!
For Kavanaugh, this was really a “separation of powers” issue. The question for the Court, he wrote, was “Who decides?” The legislature has the power to make law, while the courts are limited to interpreting the statutes passed by the legislature. Here, agreeing with Alito, he asserted that the Court’s decision was violating the separation of powers. And he disagreed with Gorsuch’s approach to textualism in this case, find it too narrowly focused on individual works, thus losing the context necessary in his view to determine the contemporary “public meaning” of the overall provision in 1964.
However, Kavanaugh concluded his dissent revealing his political, as opposed to interpretive, preferences. “Notwithstanding my concern about the Court’s transgression of the Constitution’s separation of powers, it is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans,” he wrote. “Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit – battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s results. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, however, I believe that it was Congress’s role, not this Court’s, to amend Title VII.” Kavanaugh’s dissent largely ignored transgender people. His omission of them from this paragraph is inexplicable in light of the scope of the Court’s opinion and their activist role over the past several decades in seeking protection against discrimination.
Interestingly, Gorsuch premised the case entirely on a strict textualist reading of the statute, avoiding reliance on the alternative theories that the EEOC and some lower courts embraced. One such theory was gender stereotyping, grounded in the Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Court held that an employer who takes an adverse action because an employee fails to comport with stereotypes about women or men has exhibited an impermissible motivation for its actions under Title VII. Another theory, first developed in race discrimination cases, was that discharging a worker because he or she was engaged in an interracial relationship was a form of discrimination because of race. Neither this “associational theory” nor the sex stereotyping theory entered into Gorsuch’s rationale for binding Title VII applicable in Bostock.
The Court’s opinion has the immediate effect of extending protection to LGBT workers in the majority of states that do not ban sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws, but there remain significant gaps in protection. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, state and local government employees, and federal employees. It does not apply to the uniformed military (so this decision does not directly affect Trump’s transgender service ban), or to religious organizations in their policies on “ministerial employees.” Thus, a substantial portion of the nation’s workforce does not gain any protection from discrimination by this interpretation of Title VII, because a substantial portion of the workforce is employed by smaller businesses or is classified as non-employee contractors. Furthermore, as Gorsuch noted briefly but Alito expounded at length, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might be interpreted to “supplant” the Title VII protections in particular cases.
The potential application of RFRA is worth noting. Reading Gorsuch’s opinion, one might immediately identify this as a potential “poison pill.” A few years ago, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court suddenly discovered that business corporations could argue that a particular policy mandated by another federal law unduly burdened the employer’s free exercise of religion, and they might thereby escape compliance with the law if the government fell short in showing that its policy was the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling government interest. (In Harris Funeral Homes, the 6th Circuit interpreted RFRA in this context and found that the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex discrimination could be achieved only by an outright prohibition, without an exception for business owners who had religious objections.) Although Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby rejected the idea that an employer could make such an argument in defense of a race discrimination claim, Justice Ginsburg pointed out in dissent that Alito’s opinion failed to address the issue of sexual orientation, pointing to cases where businesses claimed a religiously-based right to discriminate against gay people. This is an issue that is hardly settled, and Gorsuch’s reference to the possibility of RFRA as a “super statute” to “supplant” Title VII protections in “appropriate cases” is ominous. Where a case does not involve “ministerial employees,” the full weight of Title VII normally applies to the issue of employment discrimination by religious institutions whether because of race or color, sex or national origin. Shortly, the Court will be ruling on some new cases about the scope of this “ministerial” exception, and may issue a decision that bears on cases in which, for example, gay employees of Catholic educational institutions have been terminated for entering same-sex marriages.
In addition, of course, Title VII only applies to employment decisions. It doesn’t affect decisions by companies about hiring people as non-employee independent contractors, and it doesn’t apply to the myriad other ways that LGBT people encounter discrimination through denial of services, housing, and other privileges of living in our society. This decision does not eliminate the need for enactment of the Equality Act, a bill that would amend numerous provisions of federal law to extend anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people, while amending Title VII to make explicit the coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps most importantly in terms of gap-filling, the Equality Act would add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal public accommodations law while at the same time expanding the concept of a public accommodation, and would also require federal contractors and funding recipients not to discriminate on these grounds.
Alito’s dissent suggested that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion could protect LGBT people from discrimination under all those other federal statutes that address discrimination because of sex. That would fill a significant part of the gap left by this decision, but not all of it, because, as explained in the previous paragraph, the Civil Rights Act provisions on public accommodations do not forbid sex discrimination and small employers are not covered. Alito appended to his dissent a list of more than 100 federal statutory provisions that he claimed would be affected by this decision, among them Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which courts have addressed disputes involving transgender students. This provides a useful “to do” list for the LGBT rights litigation groups, finding cases to firmly establish that the Court’s conclusion in Bostock applies to all those other protections. Closing the gaps through passage of the Equality Act and through passage of state and local laws to cover employers not subject to Title VII must be an ongoing project. There also may be an opening to persuade state courts that they should adopt similar interpretations of the prohibition of sex discrimination under their state laws.
An early test may come as courts confront challenges to a new regulation announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, just days before this decision was announced, reversing an Obama Administration rule under the Affordable Care Act’s antidiscrimination provision and “withdrawing” protection against discrimination under that Act for transgender people. Lawsuits were quickly threatened challenging this regulation. The ACA incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, so federal courts should read this consistentlyly with Bostock and hold that the regulatory action violates the statute.
Another important point to bear in mind is that coverage of a form of discrimination by the statute does not inevitably lead to a ruling on the merits for the employee. Title VII litigation can be very difficult, and many employees lose their cases early in the process due to procedural roadblocks or, in the case of sex discrimination claims, to the courts’ view that sex may be a “bona fide occupational qualification” in a particular case. When plaintiffs attempt to represent themselves, they may be felled by statutes of limitations, shortcomings in their factual pleadings, or limited resources to investigate the facts and articulate a convincing claim as required by federal civil pleading standards. Furthermore, many employers require employees to execute arbitration agreements when they are hired, so plaintiffs seeking to get their proverbial “day in court” may be disappointed to discover that they are relegated to arguing in private before an arbitrator, in many cases carefully selected by the employer based on his or her “track record” in ruling on employee claims. The road to vindication is not always a smooth one.
The Court’s decision was immediately controversial with certain conservative and religious groups, some of which quickly made spurious claims about how this ruling could interfere with their free exercise and free speech rights, but public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people for many years now, so there was no startled outcry by the public at large in the days following the ruling. Those who are cynical about the idea of judging by “neutral principals of law” have often exclaimed that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so they may characterize this opinion as more political than legal, but the “bipartisan” nature of the line-up of justices would rebut that contention. And, notably, many of the court of appeals decisions that have ruled this way in recent years have also been bipartisan. The opinion, in the matter of fact way that Gorsuch writes about “homosexual” and “transgender” people in the opinion, comes across as impassive by comparison to the florid prose of Kennedy, but it gets the job done.
Kavanaugh’s closing paragraph says that “gays and lesbians” should take pride in this victory, which was hard-earned through decades of political, legal and personal struggle. A brief pause to take pride in this ruling is appropriate, but pushing ahead to fill the remaining gaps in full legal equality is essential. A battle has been won, but not yet the war.
Unfortunately, neither Donald Zarda nor Aimee Stephens lived to learn of their victories. Zarda, who had been fired from a job as a sky-diving instructor, died in a sky-diving accident while his case was pending. Stephens was gravely ill by the time of the oral argument (which she attended, although wheelchair bound), and passed away just weeks before the Court’s decision. Gerald Bostock, however, gave delighted interviews to the press, and was looking forward to the remand back to the district court so that he would get his opportunity to prove that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination.
The Court was flooded with amicus briefs in these cases, too numerous to mention individually here. On October 8, 2019, the Court first heard arguments on the sexual orientation issue, with Pamela S. Karlen representing Bostock and the Estate of Zarda, Jeffrey M. Harris representing the Clayton County and Altitude Express, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco presenting the Trump Administration’s position in support of the employers. Next the Court heard arguments on the gender identity issue, with David Cole representing Stephens, John J. Bursch representing Harris Funeral Homes, and again Solicitor General Francisco representing the Trump Administration’s position that gender identity discrimination is not covered by Title VII. The EEOC, the respondent in the case, was not separately represented and did not support the government’s position, evidenced by the government’s briefs, which unusually did not list attorneys from the agency.
Posts Tagged ‘United States Supreme Court’
Supreme Court Holds that Federal Law Bans Anti-LGBT Employment Discrimination in Historic 6-3 Ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
The Supreme Court announced on October 7 that it was denying review in two LGBT-related cases: Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431, a New York case, and Calgaro v. St. Louis County, No. 19-127, a Minnesota case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The more significant decision is to deny review in the Frank G. case.
In Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (N.Y. App. Div. 2018), the New York 2nd Department Appellate Division upheld a decision by an Orange County Family Court judge to award custody of twin boys to the former same-sex partner of the children’s biological father, and the New York Court of Appeals denied review.
The children’s biological mother, Renee, is the sister of Joseph P., the former same-sex partner. Frank G., the biological father, had moved with the children to Florida without notifying Joseph P., who had a closely-bonded relationship with the children even though the fathers were no longer living together. Joseph P. sued to be appointed a guardian of the children, at a time when the Court of Appeals had not yet recognized the parental status of same-sex partners.
After the Court of Appeals ruled in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), that same-sex co-parents could be recognized as having the same parental rights and standing as biological or adoptive parents in certain circumstances, even if they were not married to the biological parent or had not adopted the children, Joseph P. amended his complaint to seek custody.
Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods evaluated all the relevant circumstances and decided that the children’s best interest would be served by awarding custody to Joseph P. and according visitation rights to Frank G. She did not find that Frank G. was “unfit”, but instead placed both fathers on equal standing and then considered which one would provide the preferable home for the twins. Relying on Brooke S.B., the Appellate Division affirmed. Frank G. tried to appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals, arguing that his Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were violated by the lower courts’ opinion, but the Court of Appeals refused to hear his appeal.
In past cases, the Supreme Court has recognized as a fundamental right the liberty interest of biological parents in the care and raising of their children. In his Petition to the Supreme Court, Frank G. argued that this liberty interest was violated when he was deprived of custody in favor of a co-parent based on a “best interest of the children” analysis without any finding that he was unfit or unqualified to have custody.
The Petition argued to the Supreme Court that the case had national significance and needed a Supreme Court ruling, because various state courts have disagreed about how to handle parental custody claims by unmarried same-sex partners of biological or adoptive parents. Since the Supreme Court is most likely to grant review in a case that presents important constitutional questions about which lower courts are divided, it seemed highly likely that the Court might decide to review this case. The likelihood was enhanced because Frank’s petition was filed by Gene Schaerr, a former clerk of Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Antonin Scalia and a prominent anti-LGBT lawyer and partner in a Washington, D.C., firm that frequently litigates in the Supreme Court. Furthermore, several amicus briefs were filed in support of the Petition, urging the Court to reaffirm the traditional doctrine that biological parents who are not found to be “unfit” always have custodial preference over persons who are not related to their children by biology or adoption.
Had the court taken this case, the current conservative majority might abrogate Brooke S.B. and similar decisions from other states that have been important precedents according equal standing to same-sex parents. The denial of review means the law can continue to develop in the lower courts for now without intervention by the Supreme Court, which is at least a temporary victory for LGBT rights advocates.
The denial of review in the other case, Calgaro v. St. Louis County, 919 F.3d 1054 (8th Cir. 2019), was expected, since the conservative 8th Circuit found no merit to Anmarie Calgaro’s claim that she should be entitled to damages from individuals and institutions that had assisted her child, a transgender girl, when she decided to leave her unsupportive home before she had reached age 18 in order to transition. Calgaro argued unsuccessfully in the federal district court in Minnesota and before the 8th Circuit that her constitutional rights as a mother were violated when the county and its public health director, the local school district and high school principal, and other private institutions respected her child’s wishes and kept Anmarie in the dark about where her child was living. She also objected to being excluded from decisions about her child’s transition.
Of course, the case raises important issues, but the Supreme Court has shown great reluctance to get involved with cases that are effectively moot, and in this case E.J.K., the child in question, has long passed the age of 18, thus achieving adult status under Minnesota law and being entitled to emancipate herself from control by her parent. Calgaro is represented by the Thomas More Society, a Catholic lawyers group that generally focuses on religious free exercise cases, occasionally in opposition to LGBT rights. E.J.K. is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Two conservative groups filed amicus briefs urging the Court to take the case.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious freedom litigation group, is asking the Supreme Court to take a second look at Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, No. 19-333 (Docketed September 12, 2019), in which the Washington Supreme Court held that a florist who refused to provide her usual custom floral design and installation wedding services for a same-sex couple had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law, and did not have a valid 1st Amendment defense. The Washington court’s original decision was vacated by the Court in June 2018 for reconsideration in light of the Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018), but the Washington Supreme Court reiterated its earlier holding, 441 P.3d 1203 (Wash. 2019), finding that the record of proceedings in the Superior Court and the Supreme Court in the earlier litigation showed no evidence of hostility to religion and thus was not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece.
The Petition proposes two questions for review: 1. Whether the State violates a floral designer’s First Amendment rights to free exercise and free speech by forcing her to take part in and create custom floral art celebrating same-sex weddings or by acting based on hostility toward her religious beliefs; and 2. Whether the Free Exercise Clause’s prohibition on religious hostility applies to the executive branch.
In the first question, the Petitioner asks the Court to take up the underlying constitutional issues in Masterpiece Cakeshop, which the Court evaded in its opinion, and to resolve them once and for all, pointing to litigation from around the country in which small businesses had declined to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings, based on the religious beliefs of the proprietors, and had been hauled into state human rights commissions or courts on charges of violating anti-discrimination laws. There have been mixed results in these cases. Beginning with a recalcitrant wedding photographer in New Mexico and continuing with cases involving bakers, florists, commercial wedding venues, stationers and videographers, administrative agencies and courts consistently ruled against allowing religious belief exemptions from generally-applicable anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation. However, more recently, there has begun what may be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction, sparked in part by persistent appeals by ADF from adverse administrative and trial court rulings in affirmative litigation seeking declaratory judgments to establish religious exemptions.
In Masterpiece, the Court found several grounds taken together upon which to reverse the Colorado Court of Appeals’ ruling against the baker, most notably characterizing some public comments by Colorado commissioners that the Court found to evidence open hostility to the baker’s religious views. The Court also noted an inconsistency in the Colorado Commission’s dismissal of complaints against bakers by a religious provocateur who sought to order cakes decorated to disparage same-sex marriages and was turned down. The Court also noted that at the time the couple approach the baker, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so the baker could have believed he had no obligation to make such a cake. While reasserting the general principle that businesses do not enjoy a religious freedom exemption from complying with public accommodation anti-discrimination laws, the Court observed that litigations raising religion freedom claims are entitled to a “neutral” forum to decide their cases, not one evidencing hostility to their religious views.
In Arlene’s Flowers, ADF had filed a statement with the Court after Masterpiece suggesting that evidence of hostility could be found in that case, and the Washington Supreme Court took the remand as a charge to scour the record for signs of such, which it did not find. The Washington court read Masterpiece to be focused solely on the hostility or non-neutrality of the forum deciding the case. That case did not involve a hearing before an administrative agency, as the first decision was by the trial court.
In its second proposed question, ADF argues that this was error by the Washington Supreme Court, contending that while the Masterpiece ruling was based on open hostility by commissioners, it could not properly be read to impose a ban on governmental hostility only on government actors performing the function of adjudicating cases. ADF argues that the Attorney General of Washington evinced hostility and discrimination against religion by seizing upon news reports to come down hard on the florist, threatening litigation if she did not certify that in future should would provide her services to same-sex couples for weddings, making public comments criticizing religious objection to providing such services, and failing to bring similar action based on news reports about a coffee-shop owner expelling “Christians” from his establishment “based on religious views they expressed on a public street.” ADF also criticized as “unprecedented” the Attorney General’s action in suing under the state’s Consumer Protection Law as well as the anti-discrimination law.
The Petition’s statement of facts is artfully written to suggest a saintly woman who loves gay people and happily sells them flowers for a variety of occasions, but just balks at providing custom weddings services based on her sincerely-held religious beliefs. It argues that there is no evidence in the record of hostility toward gay people by the florist, emphasizing the long relationship she had selling floral goods to the men whom she turned down for wedding-related services, and maintaining that she had not turned down their business because they were gay but rather due to her religious objections to their wedding, and trying to draw that distinction as requiring dismissal of the discrimination complaint entirely.
The Petition argues that the Washington Supreme Court took too narrow a view of the Supreme Court’s doctrine concerning the obligation of the government to refrain from hostility towards religion, pointing to cases where the Court had found legislatures as well as adjudicators to have violated the 1st Amendment, and argued that executives, such as the Attorney General, were no less bound by the First Amendment. The Petition builds on a recent ruling by the 8th Circuit in the videographer case reported last month, Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, 2019 WL 3979621 (Aug. 23, 2019), and seeks to position the Petitioner, a florist, in the same category of First Amendment expression. In effect, the Petition asks the Court to hold that any business that engages in creative expression for hire cannot be compelled to provide its services for an activity of which it disapproves on religious grounds.
Without making it a central part of the argument, the Petition notes several instances in which various members of the Court have suggested a need to reconsider its long-standing precedent in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), intimating that this is the ideal case to do so. That was the case that reversed decades of 1st Amendment free exercise precedents to hold that religious objectors do not enjoy a privilege to refuse to comply with religiously-neutral state laws of general application that incidentally may burden their free exercise of religion. Employment Division prompted Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, applying the pre-Employment Division caselaw to the interpretation of federal statutes, and leading many states to pass similar laws. A ruing overruling Employment Division and reinstating prior would law would, in effect, constitutionalize the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making it more difficult in many cases for LGBTQ people suffering discrimination to vindicate their rights through legislative action, since the state and federal legislatures cannot overturn a Supreme Court constitutional ruling.
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.
In Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), the New York Court of Appeals overruled a 25-year-old precedent and held that when there is clear and convincing evidence that a same-sex couple agreed to have a child and raise the child together, where only one of them will be the child’s biological parent, and both of the parties performed parental duties and bonded with the children, the other parent would have the same rights as the biological parent in a later custody dispute. Now a gay biological dad who lost custody of twins to his former same-sex partner by application of the Brooke S.B. precedent asked the U.S. Supreme Court on May 10 to rule that his 14th Amendment Due Process rights have been violated. Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431 (Filed May 10, 2019); Renee P.F. v. Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (App. Div., 2nd Dep’t, May 30, 2018), leave to appeal denied, 32 N.Y.3d 910 (N.Y.C.A., Dec. 11, 2018).
Frank G. and Joseph P. lived together in a same-sex relationship in New York and made a joint decision to have a child. Joseph P.’s sister, Renee, had previously volunteered to be a surrogate for her gay brother, both donating her eggs and bearing the resulting child or children. Renee became pregnant through assisted reproductive technology using Frank’s sperm. The three entered into a written agreement under which Renee would surrender parental rights but would be involved with the resulting child or children as their aunt.
After the twins were born, both men participated in parenting duties. Joseph sought to adopt the twins under New York’s second-parent adoption rules, and he remembered completing paperwork that Frank was supposed to complete and submit, but that never happened. The men were not sexually exclusive and eventually arguments about Frank’s sexual activities led to Joseph moving out. He continued to have regular contact with the children until Frank suddenly cut off contact after another argument. Frank subsequently moved with the children to Florida in December 2014. Frank did not notify Joseph or Renee of that move. When they found out, Joseph filed a guardianship petition. (Under New York precedents at the time, he did not have standing to file a custody petition.)
As lower court rulings were questioning the old New York precedent, Joseph withdrew his guardianship petition and both he and Renee filed custody petitions. Renee had standing to seek custody as the biological mother who had remained in contact with the children.
Frank moved to dismiss the custody lawsuit, but the trial judge, Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods, rejected the motion, holding that both Joseph and Renee had standing to seek custody and ordering temporary visitation rights for Joseph and Renee while the case was proceeding. Frank appealed to the Appellate Division, 2nd Department. While his appeal was pending, the Court of Appeals decided Brooke S.B.. Applying that case, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s standing decision and returned the case Judge Woods.
After a lengthy trial, which is summarized in detail in the trial court’s opinion, the trial court awarded custody to Joseph, with visitation rights for Frank. Frank appealed again. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order. Frank unsuccessfully sought review by the New York Court of Appeals.
Frank is represented on the Supreme Court petition by Gene C. Schaerr of the Washington, D.C. firm of Schaerr/Jaffe LLP. Schaerr, a Federalist Society stalwart and a Mormon from Utah, where he graduated from Brigham Young University’s Law School, was prominently involved in the marriage equality battle, representing the state of Utah in defending its ban on same-sex in federal court, and he submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges on behalf of conservative legal scholars who argued that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to the institution of marriage, presenting social statistics from Europe purporting to show that the adoption of same-sex marriage in some countries caused rates of heterosexual marriage to fall. Social scientists have contended that the downward trend in marriage rates in Europe was well under way long before the countries in question extended legal recognition to same-sex relationships, and causation was not shown. In other words, Schaerr is an anti-LGBT cause lawyer, and the slanting of facts recited in the Petition for Frank as compared to the detailed fact findings summarized in the trial court’s unpublished opinion, which is appended to the cert Petition, is striking.
Family law is primarily a matter of state law, but the U.S. Supreme Court occasionally gets involved in family law disputes that raise constitutional issues. Since early in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has ruled that a legal parent of a child has constitutional rights, derived from the Due Process Clause, relating to custody and childrearing. The Petition argues that the rule adopted by the New York Court of Appeals and the appellate courts of some other states, recognizing parental status for purposes of custody disputes between unmarried same-sex partners, improperly abridges the Due Process rights of the biological parents.
Some state courts have issued decisions similar to Brooke S.B., while others have refused to recognize standing for unmarried same-sex partners to seek custody. There is definitely a split of authority on the issue, but it is not necessarily the kind of split that would induce the Supreme Court to take a case. The Supreme Court is most concerned with variant interpretations of federal statutes or of the U.S. Constitution, but the state court cases addressing the issue of same-sex partner standing have generally not discussed constitutional issues and have reached their conclusions as an interpretation of their state custody statutes. Although it is true that same-sex partner parental rights vary as between different states, this does not necessary create the kind of patchwork as to federal rights upon which the Court would focus.
Furthermore, the Court has not invariably ruled in favor of biological parents on the rare occasion when it has agreed to consider legal issues arising from custody disputes. For example, in one notable case, it upheld a California law creating an irrebuttable presumption that a man who was married to a birth mother is the father of the resulting child, even when it was obvious, and nobody disputed, that another man was responsible for impregnating the woman. In that case, even though the woman and her husband were living on opposite coasts when she became pregnant in a relationship with the plaintiff, the court upheld denying that man standing to seek custody of the child.
Most of the Supreme Court rulings on disputed custody issues have placed substantial weight on the rights of the biological parent, including a presumption that the biological parent will make decisions in the best interest of the child. In this Petition, Frank claims that the New York courts violate the 14th Amendment by not applying such a presumption for the biological father in the context of a same-sex couple custody dispute.
The Supreme Court’s deadline for filing a brief in response to a petition for certiorari in this case was June 14, but the Court’s docket does not show the filing of a brief or appearance of counsel on behalf of Joseph or Renee as of June 19. However, four conservative organizations have filed motions with the Court to accept amicus briefs in support of Frank’s petition. Frank’s attorneys have consented to the filing of these briefs, of course, but Joseph has not consented, so it is up to the Court whether they can be filed.
If the Supreme Court decides to take this case, the Brooke S.B. precedent, which LGBT rights litigators struggled for many years to obtain, may fall.
Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Oregon Wedding Cake Case, but Remands for “Further Consideration” in Light of Masterpiece Cakeshop
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. 18-547, on June 17, but at the same time vacated the Oregon Court of Appeals decision in the case, 289 Or. App. 507 (Dec. 28, 2017), and remanded the case to that court for “further consideration” in light of the Court’s decision last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018). The Court did not issue any explanation for its ruling, beyond the direction of “further consideration” specifying Masterpiece Cakeshop as the ground for such consideration.
Both cases involved the question whether a baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple has a federal constitutional defense to a discrimination charge in the state administrative and judicial fora. In both Oregon and Colorado, state law forbids discrimination because of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation, and businesses selling wedding cakes are definitely public accommodations under both laws. Without ruling directly on the question presented in Masterpiece, the Supreme Court last year vacated the Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Commission rulings based on the Court’s conclusion that the Commission forum was “hostile to religion” as evidenced by statements by two of the Commissioners and “inconsistent” action on a religious discrimination charge by a provocateur who sought unsuccessfully to order anti-gay cakes from other bakers.
It takes at least four votes on the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari, but it takes at least five votes to vacate and remand a lower court ruling. According to its usual practice, the Court did not specify how many justices voted for the cert grant or the “vacate and remand” order.
The issue on remand for the Oregon Court of Appeals appears to be whether some statements made by Brad Avakian, Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), evinced the kind of hostility to religion that the Supreme Court identified as problematic in the Masterpiece case.
When Melissa Klein, proprietor of Sweetcakes by Melissa, rejected a wedding cake order from Rachel and Lauren Bowman-Cryer on religious grounds, the women filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice and the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The media found the case newsworthy, resulting in interviews with Melissa Klein and her husband in which they sought to justify their action on religious grounds. Commissioner Avakian reacted to the ensuing controversy by posting a statement to his Facebook page and speaking with The Oregonian, a wide-read newspaper in the state.
Avakian’s Facebook post included a link to a television station’s news story about the refusal of service and a statement: “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can disobey laws that are already in place. Having one set of rules for everybody ensures that people are treated fairly as they go about their daily lives.” The Oregonian subsequently quoted Avakian as saying that “everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that folks have the right to discriminate.”
Under BOLI’s procedures, an administrative law judge (ALJ) holds a hearing and issues a “proposed final order,” to which the parties can file “exceptions” as an appeal to the Commissioner. Before the hearing in this case, the Kleins moved to disqualify Commissioner Avakian from taking any role in the case, arguing that his public statements had prejudged the case so he was not neutral. The ALJ denied the motion to disqualify and went on to find that the Kleins had violated the statute by denying services to the couple “on account of” their sexual orientation, as prohibited by the statute. The ALJ rejected the Kleins argument that they had not discriminated because of the women’s sexual orientation, or that their actions were protected by the First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion provisions. But the ALJ also rejected BOLI’s argument that statements made by Mr. Klein during interviews were communicating a future intent to discriminate, which would itself violate a specific prohibition in the statute. Rather, the ALJ ruled, they were an account of the reasons for their denial of services in this case. The ALJ ordered damages to the couple totaling $135,000, mainly for emotional suffering and having to put up with the media attention.
The Kleins and BOLI both filed exceptions to the ALJ’s proposed order. Commissioner Avakian affirmed the ALJ’s ruling on discrimination, but disagreed with the ruling on statement of future intent to discriminate. Avakian concluded that the record supported the opposite finding, that the interviews and a sign taped to the bakery’s window communicated intent to discriminate on the same basis in the future, but he approved the ALJ’s proposed damage award without adding anything for this additional violation. The Kleins then petitioned for judicial review.
The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision on discrimination, but rejected Commissioner Avakian’s reversal of the ALJ’s ruling on communicating an intention to discriminate in the future. The court also rejected the Kleins’ argument on appeal that Avakian should have been disqualified from ruling on the case because of his Facebook and Oregonian interview statements. As to another flashpoint in the case, the court deemed the amount of damages awarded appropriate, noting that the amount was in line with damages awarded in other similar cases. The Kleins sought review in the Oregon Supreme Court, but were turned down without comment.
The Kleins’ petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court mentions the issue of Avakian’s statements and the ALJ and Oregon court’s rejections of disqualification, but it does not focus on that issue in its statement of questions presented, even though the petition was filed months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop made that a potentially viable alternative route to getting the agency’s decision overturned. Counsel for the Kleins, instead, were focused on getting the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1990 ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, in which the Court abandoned its long-established free exercise clause jurisprudence, substituting a rule that people have to comply with neutral state laws of general application – such as most anti-discrimination laws – even though complying might burden their free exercise of religion. Their second “question presented” asked the Court to overrule Smith, and their third “question presented” asked the Court to “reaffirm” a “hybrid rights doctrine” suggested in dicta in Smith, where there would be more stringent judicial review in cases where other constitutional rights in addition to free exercise of religion were implicated.
The Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the Oregon Court of Appeals decision for “further consideration” by the state court suggests that there are not enough votes on the Court to reconsider Smith as of now, but we can’t know how many votes short the proponents on the Court of reconsidering Smith might be. Smith has long been a controversial precedent. The decision’s cutback on protection for religious objectors led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and many states to pass their own versions of that law. But Smith has become a bulwark for vindicating the rights of same-sex couples to obtain wedding-related goods and services, as most courts confronted with the issue have concluded that such businesses do not have the right to deny them to same-sex couples.
The Kleins are represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, Boyden Gray & Associates of Washington, D.C., and Oregon local counsel Herbert G. Grey. Ten amicus briefs, all urging the Court to grant the petition for certiorari, were filed by conservative and religious litigation and policy groups, many extolling the case as a vehicle for overturning Employment Division v. Smith. Lambda Legal represented Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer with an amicus brief at the Oregon Court of Appeals.
United States Supreme Court Refuses to Review Transgender Bathroom Case from Boyertown, Pennsylvania
The Supreme Court announced on May 28 that it will not review a decision by the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which had rejected a constitutional and statutory challenge by cisgender students at Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Senior High School, who were upset that the School District decided to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity. Doe v. Boyertown Area School District & Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, 897 F.3d 518 (3rd Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 2257330 (May 28, 2019).
The federal lawsuit stemmed from a decision in 2016 by the School District to permit transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and local attorneys affiliated with the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg filed suit on behalf of several cisgender students, proceeding under pseudonyms, contending that this decision violated their rights on three theories: constitutional right of bodily privacy under the 14th Amendment, creation of a “hostile environment” in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal funds, and violation of the right of privacy under Pennsylvania state common law. Upon filing their complaint, the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith (E.D. Pa.) to issue a preliminary injunction to block the school district’s policy while the case was pending.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s National LGBT Rights Project joined the case, representing the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened as a co-defendant to help the School District defend its policy.
This case is part of a national campaign by ADF to preserve and defend restrictions on restroom and locker room use by transgender students, part of ADF’s overall goal – consistent with the Trump Administration’s anti-transgender policies – to deprive transgender people of any protection under federal law. So far, ADF has lost a succession of “bathroom” cases, and the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in this case was one of its most notable defeats. At the same time, however, the Education Department under the leadership of Trump’s appointee, Betsy De Vos, has reversed the Obama Administration’s policy and now refuses to investigate discrimination claims by transgender students under Title IX, leaving it up to individuals to file lawsuits seeking protection under the statute.
Judge Smith refused to issue the requested preliminary injunction on August 25, 2017, 276 F. Supp. 3d 324, writing an extensive decision that concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of any of their theories, and that mere exposure to transgender students was not going to impose an irreparable injury on them anyway. Judge Smith was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, but it was noteworthy that at his Senate confirmation vote, he received more votes from Republican Senators than Democratic Senators.
Plaintiffs appealed to the 3rd Circuit, and suffered a loss before a unanimous three judge panel, which issued its decision on June 18, 2018. The opinion was written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton. The other judges on the panel were Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz, who was appointed by President Obama to fill the vacancy created by Circuit Judge Marion Trump Barry, President Trump’s sister, when she took senior status; and Senior Circuit Judge Richard Nygaard, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
Judge McKee’s opinion set the stage with an extended discussion of gender identity based on the expert testimony offered by defendants in opposition to the motion for preliminary relief, including a much-cited amicus brief by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, which stated that policies excluding transgender students from “privacy facilities” consistent with their gender identities “have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health, safety, and well-being of transgender individuals.” Judge McKee also quoted from an amicus brief filed by National PTA and Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), that forcing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity causes “severe psychological distress often leading to attempted suicide.” In other words, the starting point for the court’s discussion was that the School District’s policy was responding to a serious problem faced by transgender students.
The court noted that as part of its policy the School District had renovated its “privacy facilities” to increase the privacy of individual users, and had provided single-user restrooms open to any student so that students who did not want to share facilities with others because of their gender identity would not be forced to do so. The District also required that students claiming to be transgender meet with counselors trained to address the issue, and go through a process of being approved to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. “Once a transgender student was approved to use the bathroom or locker room that aligned with his or her gender identity,” wrote Judge McKee, “the student was required to use only those facilities,” although any student was allowed to use the single-user restrooms. “The student could no longer use the facilities corresponding to that student’s birth sex.”
The plaintiffs claimed that their right to privacy was violated because the school’s policy permitted them to be viewed by members of the opposite sex while partially clothed. The 3rd Circuit found that Judge Smith “correctly found that this would not give rise to a constitutional violation because the School District’s policy served a compelling interest – to prevent discrimination against transgender students – and was narrowly tailored to that interest.” The court pointed out that privacy rights under the Constitution are not absolute. Furthermore, wrote McKee, “the School District’s policy fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and that, as the National Education Association’s amicus brief “convincingly explains, these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.”
While the court empathized with cisgender students who experienced “surprise” at finding themselves “in an intimate space with a student they understood was of the opposite biological sex” – an experience specifically evoked in the plaintiffs’ brief in support of their motion – the court said, “We cannot, however, equate the situation the appellants now face with the very drastic consequences that the transgender students must endure if the school were to ignore the latter’s needs and concerns.” And, the court pointed out, cisgender students “who feel that they must try to limit trips to the restroom to avoid contact with transgender students can use the single-user bathrooms in the school.” The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the best solution to the issue was to require transgender students to use the handful of single-user restrooms, finding that this would “significantly undermine” the District’s compelling interest in treating transgender students in a non-discriminatory manner.
The court also pointed out that the plaintiffs’ privacy arguments sought to push that doctrine far beyond anything supported by existing case law. The court rejected analogies to cases involving inappropriate strip searches and peeping toms. “Those cases involve inappropriate conduct as well as conduct that intruded into far more intimate aspects of human affairs than here. There is simply nothing inappropriate about transgender students using the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity” under the School District’s policy, insisted the court, which also found that the “encounters” described by the plaintiffs did not involve transgender students doing “anything remotely out of the ordinary” while using the “privacy facilities” at the school.
As a result of these findings, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their privacy claims under Title IX, the Constitution, or Pennsylvania tort law. Further, looking to “hostile environment sex discrimination” claims under Title IX (and the more developed hostile environment case law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers employment discrimination and serves as a resource for courts interpreting Title IX), the court found that the possibility of encountering transgender students in a restroom failed to meet the high test set by the courts of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” The possibility of occasionally encountering one of a handful of transgender students in a “privacy facility” fell far short of meeting that test.
Furthermore, the court found that the District’s policy was “sex-neutral” in that it applied to everybody, and asserted that plaintiffs had not “provided any authority” for the proposition that a “sex-neutral policy” would violate Title IX. “The School District’s policy allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity,” wrote McKee. “It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not violate Title IX.”
The court drew support for its conclusion from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit against the Kenosha, Wisconsin, school district, where the court found that excluding a transgender boy from using the boys’ restroom facilities did violate Title IX. See Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017). Consistent with that ruling, the Boyertown School District’s policy could be seen as mandated by its obligation under Title IX to provide equal educational access and opportunities to transgender students. The court also noted transgender rights rulings by the 1st, 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits, concluding that anti-transgender discrimination in a variety of contexts violates federal laws forbidding sex discrimination. There is an emerging consensus among federal courts of appeals along these lines. The validity of this reasoning will be up for Supreme Court debate next Term when the Court reviews the 6th Circuit’s decision in favor of Aimee Stephens, the transgender employment discrimination plaintiff in the Harris Funeral Homes case, to be argued in the fall.
The plaintiff’s petition to the Supreme Court to review the Boyertown decision posed two questions to the Court: “Whether a public school has a compelling interest in authorizing students who believe themselves to be members of the opposite sex to use locker rooms and restrooms reserved exclusively for the opposite sex, and whether such a policy is narrowly tailored,” and “Whether the Boyertown policy constructively denies access to locker room and restroom facilities under Title IX ‘on the basis of sex.’” These questions were phrased by ADF to incorporate its religiously-based beliefs seeking to discredit the reality of transgender existence, similar to attempts by the Trump Administration in its proposed regulations and policy statements. If the Court had been tempted to grant this petition, it would likely have reworded the “Questions Presented,” as it pointedly did when it granted ADF’s petition to review the Harris Funeral Homes decision on April 22.
Although the decision not to review a court of appeals case does not constitute a ruling on the merits by the Supreme Court and does not establish a binding precedent on lower courts, it sends a signal to the lower courts, the practicing bar, and the parties. In this case, the signal is important for school districts to hear as they try to navigate between the rulings by courts in favor of transgender student claims and the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama Administration policy on this issue. The question whether Title IX mandates the Boyertown School District’s access policy was not squarely before the Court in this case, and the justices may have denied review because they were already committed to consider whether federal sex discrimination laws cover gender identity discrimination in the Harris Funeral Homes case.
The Court normally provides no explanation why it grants or denies a petition for review although, interestingly, in another announcement on May 28, the Court did provide such a rare explanation in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, 2019 WL 2257160 (Sup. Ct., May 28, 2019). In Box, the Court denied review of a decision by the 7th Circuit striking down on constitutional grounds an Indiana law that prohibits health care providers from providing abortions that are motivated solely by the sex, race or disability of the fetus, stating: “Only the Seventh Circuit has thus far addressed this kind of law. We follow our ordinary practice of denying petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals.” The implication for the Boyertown case is that the 3rd Circuit opinion may have been denied review because it was the only federal appeals court ruling to address the precise question before the Court.
Supreme Court to Decide Whether Discrimination Because of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Violates Title VII’s Ban on Discrimination Because of Sex
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.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 15 that it will not hear an appeal by gay death row inmate Charles Rhines, who contends that the jury that chose death over life in prison without parole in his murder trial in 1993 was tainted by homophobic statements by some of the jurors during deliberations. Rhines v. Young, No. 18-8029 (filed Feb. 15, 2019). At the same time, the Court announced that it will not take up the question whether the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, should reconsider its 2014 decision to reject a constitutional challenge to a New Jersey law prohibiting licensed health care providers from providing “conversion therapy” to minors. King v. Murphy, No. 18-1073 (filed Feb. 11, 2019). Both of these petitions for review were considered long shots at best.
The South Dakota Attorney General’s Office filed a short reply to Rhines’ petition, insisting that its own investigation of the jury – sparked by his contentions – had failed to substantiate his claim that the jurors sentenced him to death because he is gay. There is no doubt that a juror joked that Rhines, as a gay man, would enjoy being locked up for life in an all-male environment where he would be able to mingle with other prisoners and enjoy sexual contacts, as even interviews conducted by the AG’s office confirmed this. Interviews of jurors by Rhines’ lawyers, conducted long after the trial, produced a range of recollections, ranging from a recollection that the juror in question was challenged for his remarks and apologized, to a recollection that there was considerable discussion of Rhines’ sexuality, which had been a topic of testimony during the penalty phase of the trial, when a family member testified that Rhines had struggled with his sexuality.
The jury sent a note to the trial judge during penalty deliberations, posing a series of questions about the conditions under which Rhines would be serving if he were sentenced to life without parole. Some of the questions inspired concerns by Rhines’ defense attorney that the jurors were inappropriately taking his sexual orientation into account in making their decision. The trial judge refused to respond to the questions, instructing the jurors to rely on the instructions he had previously given them.
Rhines has spent a quarter-century on death row since his conviction and sentencing, seeking to get courts to set aside the death sentence based on a variety of theories, but his hopes were spurred by a Supreme Court decision last year, holding that a court could breach the usual confidentiality of jury deliberations when there was evidence of inappropriate race discrimination by a jury. Had the Court taken Rhines’ case, it would have provided an opportunity to determine whether juror homophobia should receive the same constitutional evaluation as jury racism.
Unfortunately, the federal courts in South Dakota and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that this issue was not raised early enough in the appellate process, and that Rhines’ attempt to bring a fuller account of the juror interviews before the courts came too late. As a result, no court has ever considered Rhines’ evidence of jury homophobia on the merits. The Supreme Court had turned down a prior attempt by Rhines last year, while a prior appeal was pending before the 8th Circuit. After the 8th Circuit rejected his latest attempt, Rhines filed a new petition, but in vain.
Publicity to his plight resulted in the submission of three briefs in support of his petition, by a Law Professors group, the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Although the Court granted the motions to receive those briefs, it rejected Rhines’ petition without comment.
The conversion therapy petition posed a novel question to the Court. Should it order a federal appeals court to reopen a decision that had received unfavorable mention in a recent Supreme Court opinion in an unrelated case, when the Supreme Court itself had years ago rejected a petition to review the appeals court decision?
Conversion therapy practitioners filed a constitutional challenge to the New Jersey law banning conversion therapy, claiming it violated their constitutional free speech rights. The federal district court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals both rejected their argument. King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 2048 (2015). The speech involved was “professional speech,” said the court of appeals, and thus entitled to less protection than political or literary speech. The 3rd Circuit’s ruling reached the same result as a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit in rejecting an earlier challenge to California’s conversion therapy ban, but the 9th Circuit had opined that the regulation of therapy was not subject to 1st Amendment challenge because it was a regulation of health care practice, not specifically aimed at speech as such. These distinctions did not affect the outcome of the two cases. Either way, the courts found that the state’s legitimate concerns about protecting minors from a practiced that he been condemned by leading professional associations outweighed the practitioners’ free speech claims.
However, in a new case arising from California last year, Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (June 26, 2018), the Supreme Court found fault with a state law that required licensed clinics providing services to pregnant women to advise them of the availability of abortion services from the state. The Supreme Court found this to be “compelled speech” subject to the most demanding level of judicial review, “strict scrutiny.” The state’s argument defending this requirement relied on the conversion therapy cases, arguing that the speech in question was “professional speech” subject to a less demanding level of judicial review. Writing for the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas rejected that argument, and he specifically mentioned the 3rd Circuit’s ruling with disfavor.
Even though the Supreme Court had refused a petition to review the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in 2015, the conversion therapy practitioners asked the 3rd Circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s negative comments about the earlier decision. The 3rd Circuit refused, and this petition for Supreme Court review was filed on February 11. Counsel for the respondents – New Jersey’s Attorney General and Garden State Equality, which had intervened as a co-defendant in the original case – thought so little of the petitioners’ chances that they did not file briefs in opposition. Their confidence was justified. It was never likely that the Supreme Court would order a circuit court to reopen a case from years ago that had already been denied direct review by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s April 15 announcements, deriving from its April 12 conference, failed to include any mention of five other pending cases related to LGBT rights that are being closely watched. The Court will hold another conference to discuss pending petitions on April 18 (a day earlier than normal because of the Good Friday holiday on April 19), so there may be word on April 22 whether the Court will address sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination issues next term, as well as another “gay wedding cake” case.