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Alliance Defending Freedom Asks Supreme Court to Revisit Religious Exemption Issue

Posted on: October 1st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

Transgender Teen’s Mother Asks Supreme Court to Recognize a Parent’s Due Process to Control Her Child’s Life

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

Anmarie Calgaro is one angy mama!  Despite being defeated at every turn in the lower courts, and despite her child having reached age 18 and thus no longer being subject to her parental control as a matter of law, she is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse decisions by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for Minnesota, and to establish that governmental and private entities should not be allowed to shut out a parent from continuing to control her transgender teen, even after the teen has left home and is living on her own.

 

The decisions in the lower courts are Calgaro v. St. Louis County, 2017 WL 2269500 (D. Minn. 2017), affirmed, 919 F. 3d 1054 (8th Cir. 2019), petition for certiorari filed, July 26, 2019, No. 19-127.  The Respondents have a filing deadline of August 26.

 

Calgaro is suing St. Louis County, Minnesota; St. Louis County Public Health and Human Service’s former director, Linnea Mirsch; Fairview Health Services and Park Nicollet Health Services, non-governmental health care providers; St. Louis County School District; Principal Michael Johnson of the Cherry School in that district; and, not least, her child, identified in court papers as E.J.K.

 

The Petition filed with the Supreme Court in Calgaro v. St. Louis County, No. 19-127 (docketed July 26, 2019), presents a factual narrative that differs a bit from that provided by the lower court opinions.  The Petition refers to E.J.K. by male pronouns, despite E.J.K.’s female gender identity, and tells the story from the perspective of a mother confronting misbehaving adults who were wrongfully treating her child, male from her perspective, as if he was emancipated and could make decisions on his own without notice to or approval by his mother.  She was particularly concerned that these adults (governmental and non-governmental) were assisting her child in gender transition without giving her an opportunity to object.

 

The gist of the story is that the teen, identified as male at birth but who came to identify as female, was living with her mother and younger siblings, but decided at age 15 to move out to live with her biological father for reasons not articulated by the courts or the Petition, but one can imagine them.  (From the court’s reference to “biological father,” one hypothesizes that E.J.K.’s biological parents were not married to each other.)  She stayed with her father only briefly, then staying with various family and friends, refusing to move back in with Calgaro, who claims that she has always been willing to provide a home for E.J.K.

 

After leaving her mother’s home, E.J.K. consulted a lawyer at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.  The lawyer “provided her with a letter that concluded she was legally emancipated under Minnesota law,” wrote District Judge Paul A. Magnuson.  E.J.K. never sought or obtained a court order declaring her to be emancipated.  But this letter, which by itself has no legal effect, was used effectively by E.J.K. to get government financial assistance payments that ordinarily would not be available to a minor who is not emancipated, to persuade two health care institutions to provide her with treatment in support of her gender transition, and to persuade her high school principal to recognize her gender identity and to treat her as emancipated and to refuse to deal with her mother’s requests for information and input about E.J.K.’s educational decisions.  All of these steps were achieved by E.J.K. without notice to Anmarie Calgaro, who claims to have been rebuffed at every turn in her attempt to find out what was going on with the child to whom she referred as her “son.”

 

The essence of Calgaro’s claim is that in the absence of a court order declaring that E.J.K. was emancipated from her parents, none of these things should have happened.  Relying on  cases finding that parents have Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment concerning the custody, control and raising of their minor children, she claims that each of the defendants violated her constitutional rights by failing to give notice to her of what was happening, failing to afford her some kind of hearing in which she could state her position, and shutting her out from information about her child.

 

She had specifically requested from Cherry School Principal Johnson to have access to E.J.K.’s educational records, but was turned down.  She asked the government agency and the health care institutions for access to E.J.K’s records concerning her health care and her government assistance, but was turned down again.  Who knew a Legal Aid lawyer’s opinion letter could be so powerful!

 

District Judge Magnuson dismissed Calgaro’s lawsuit on May 23, 2017.  As a practical matter, E.J.K. was then less than two months from turning 18, at which point she would become a legal adult and emancipated as a matter of law, so Calgaro’s request for injunctive relief would quickly become moot.

 

The trial court rejected Calgaro’s argument that the county, the school district, the health care institutions, or the individual named plaintiffs had violated Calgaro’s constitutional rights by declaring her child to be emancipated, for, the judge concluded, the defendants “did not emancipate E.J.K. and Calgaro continues to have sole physical and joint legal custody of E.J.K.”  The question remaining is what flows from the fact that until turning 18, E.J.K. continued to be a minor in the custody of Calgaro, even though she was no longer living at home and was effectively managing her own life without parental guidance.

 

Turning first to the health care institutions, the court pointed out that they are not “state actors” but rather private, non-profit entities, so the Due Process Clause does not impose any legal obligations on them, and they could rely on the Legal Aid lawyer’s letter and act accordingly without accruing any liability under the federal constitution.

 

As to the school district, the court found that the district could not be held liable for actions of its employees, only for its own policies or customs, and there was no evidence that the school district had any particular policy or custom regarding how to deal with transgender students or their parents.  “Calgaro fails to provide any facts that the School District executed a policy or custom that deprived Calgaro of her parental rights without due process,” wrote Magnuson.

 

As to Principal Johnson, the court found that he enjoyed “qualified immunity” from any personal liability for the actions he took as principal of Cherry School, so long as he was not violating any clearly-established constitutional right of Calgaro, and the court found no support in published court opinions for a constitutional rights of parents to have access to their child’s school records.

 

The judge also rejected Calgaro’s argument that the County violated her rights by providing financial assistance to E.J.K. without Calgaro’s consent or participation.  The County was providing assistance based on its interpretation of a Minnesota statute that allows payment of welfare benefits to some who does not have “adequate income” and is “a child under the age of 18 who is not living with a parent, stepparent, or legal custodian” but “only if: the child is legally emancipated or living with an adult with the consent of an agency acting as a legal custodian,” with “legally emancipated” meaning “a person under the age of 18 years who: (i) has been married; (ii) is on active duty in the uniformed services of the United States; (iii) has been emancipated by a court of competent jurisdiction; or (iv) is otherwise considered emancipated under Minnesota law, and for whom county social services has not determined that a social services case plan is necessary, for reasons other than the child has failed or refuses to cooperate with the county agency in developing the plan.”

 

Judge Magnuson pointed out that under this statute, the county was not necessarily required to give E.J.K. financial assistance – it was a discretionary decision by the local officials – but that as with her suit against the school district, Calgaro failed to identify a policy or custom that would subject the county to liability.  The court found the county could not be held liable for violating Calgaro’s Due Process rights based on the decision by county officials to provide benefits to E.J.K., and that the head of the county welfare agency, also named a defendant, could not be sued because there was no evidence she had anything to do with the decision to provide the benefits.

 

Furthermore, Calgaro could not sue E.J.K. “Calgaro stops short of making the absurd argument that E.J.K. deprived Calgaro of her parental rights without due process while acting under color of state law,” wrote Magnuson, who found that as all of Calgaro’s other claims had to be dismissed, any claim against E.J.K. had to fall as well.

 

Calgaro appealed to the 8th Circuit, which issued a brief decision on March 25, 2019, affirming the district court in all particulars.  Furthermore, noting the passage of time, Circuit Judge Steven Colloton wrote, “Calgaro’s remaining claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against the several defendants are moot.  E.J.K. has turned eighteen years old, ceased to be a minor under Minnesota law, and completed her education in the St. Louis County School District.  There is no ongoing case or controversy over Calgaro’s parental rights to make decisions for E.J.K. as a minor or to access her medical or educational records.”

 

Calgaro tried to argue that because she has three minor children other than E.J.K., she has a continuing interest in establishing as a matter of law that the various defendants should not be able to override her parental rights with respect to her remaining minor children, but the court found that “Calgaro has not established a reasonable expectation that any of her three minor children will be deemed emancipated by the defendants.”

 

Calgaro is represented by the Thomas More Society, a religious freedom litigation group, which is trying to use this case to establish the rights of parents, presenting two questions to the Supreme Court: first, whether parents’ Due Process rights to custody and control of their minor children “apply to local governments and medical providers” such that these entities cannot invade “parental rights, responsibilities or duties over their minor children’s welfare, education and medical care decisions without a court order;” and, second, in a rather long and convoluted question, whether the Minnesota statute defining emancipation is unconstitutional to the extent that it might be construed to authorize entities in the position of the defendants to do the things they did in this case.

 

Although the Petition does not stage this case as a religious free exercise case, the advocacy of Thomas More Society suggests that religious objections to transgender identity and transitional care underlie its interest in the case, and that if the Court were to grant the Petition, many religious organizations would be among those arguing that a parent should be able to prevent schools, government agencies, and health-care providers from assistant minors who identify as transgender from effectively freeing themselves from parental control as they seek to live in the gender with which they identify.

 

The National Center for Lesbian Rights provided legal representation to E.J.K. in the lower courts, and continues to represent E.J.K. as one of the named respondents in this Petition.

 

The odds against this Petition being granted are long, but the Court’s recent trend of taking an expansive view of religious free exercise rights suggests that it would not be totally surprising were the Court to take this case for review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointed Gay Dad Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Key New York Precedent

Posted on: June 19th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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

Posted on: June 17th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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

Posted on: May 28th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Supreme Court Rejects Appeals from Gay Death Row Inmate and Conversion Therapy Practitioners

Posted on: April 15th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

Supreme Court Takes a Pass on Hawaii B&B Discrimination Case

Posted on: March 21st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on March 18 that it will not review a decision by Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, which ruled in February 2018 that a small bed & breakfast operating in a private home in the Mariner’s Ridge section of Hawai’i Kai, violated Hawaii’s civil rights law by denying accommodations to an unmarried lesbian couple who were planning a trip to Hawaii to visit a friend.  Hawaii’s civil rights law forbids businesses that are “public accommodations” from discriminating in providing their services based on the sexual orientation of customers.  Cervelli v. Aloha Bed & Breakfast, 415 P.3d 919 (Int. Ct. App. Haw. 2018), cert. denied by Hawaii S. Ct., 2018 WL 3358586 (July 10, 2018), cert. denied, No. 18-451, 2019 WL 1231949 (U.S. Sup. Ct., March 18, 2019).

The key issues raised in the case were whether such an operation is covered by the public accommodations law, and whether the owner, Phyllis Young, who lives there and operates it personally, could successfully raise constitutional claims against being required to accommodate a lesbian couple in her home.

Young operates “Aloha B&B” out of her four-bedroom house, and has averaged between one hundred and two hundred customers a year.  She advertises on her own website and some third-party websites.  Diane Cervelli and Taeko Bufford, a “committed” lesbian couple, emailed to inquire about renting a room for their vacation trip.  Young immediately responded by email that a room was available and explained how to make a reservation.  Cervelli phoned two weeks later to book the room.  As Young was taking down her information, Cervelli mentioned that she would be accompanied by another woman, and Young asked whether they were lesbians.  When Cervelli said “Yes,” Young responded, “We’re strong Christians.  I’m very uncomfortable in accepting the reservation from you.” Young refused the reservation and hung up on Cervelli.

Bufford then called and attempted to reserve the room, but again Young refused.  Bufford asked her whether it was because she and Cervelli were lesbians, and Young said “Yes.”  Young referred to her religious beliefs as the reason she was refusing the reservation.  “Apart from Plaintiff’s sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Craig Nakamura for the court of appeals, “there was no other reason for Young’s refusal to accept Plaintiffs’ request for a room.”

The women filed a discrimination claim with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, which concluded that they had a legitimate case.  Then Cervelli and Bufford filed a lawsuit against Aloha B&B in the state circuit court, represented by Lambda Legal with local attorneys from Honolulu, and the Civil Rights Commission intervened in the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff.  Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-LGBT religious litigation group, joined with local attorneys to defend the B&B.

Judge Edwin C. Nacino of the circuit court easily rejected the B&B’s argument that it was not a public accommodation, but rather a landlord that would not be covered by this law.  The law on discrimination in real estate transactions prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in residential rentals, but doesn’t apply to facilities with four or fewer units.  While the B&B has only four bedrooms, the evidence of 100-200 rentals per year made clear that Young’s business came within the “public accommodations” definition.  Young admitted that she only rented rooms for short stays, so this was a transient rather than a residential facility.

Young claimed that requiring her to accommodate the lesbian couple in her home violated her constitutional right to privacy, freedom of intimate association and free exercise of religion.  The circuit court rejected these defenses, and awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the issues of liability and injunctive relief.  Since the defendant was planning to appeal, the issue of damages was put on hold pending a final decision on the case.

The appeals court affirmed the trial judge on all points.  Judge Nakamura wrote that “to the extent that Young has chosen to operate her bed and breakfast business from her home, she has voluntarily given up the right to be left alone,” thus rejecting her privacy claim.  Opening up her residence to 100-200 paying guests a year is inconsistent with such a privacy claim.  Furthermore, although Young lives there, the extent of commercial activity means that “it is no longer a purely private home.”  And, furthermore, “the State retains the right to regulate activities occurring in a home where others are harmed or likely to be harmed,” and in this case “discriminatory conduct caused direct harm to Plaintiffs and threatens to harm other members of the general public.”

The court similarly rejected the intimate association claim, which, said the court, applies to family relationships and other small-group settings.  “The relationship between Aloha B&B and the customers to whom it provides transient lodging is not the type of intimate relationship that is entitled to constitutional protection against a law designed to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations,” said the appeals court.

Finally, the court found Young’s federal constitutional religious freedom claim would be foreclosed by Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), where the U.S. Supreme Court held that “neutral laws of generally applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even when they have the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice,” wrote Nakamura, summarizing the holding.  Fueled by ADF’s representation, Young tried to argue that the appeals court should impose a stricter test using the Hawaii Constitution’s protection of religious freedom, but the court refused to do so, stating that in its view Hawaii’s civil rights law would survive the most demanding constitutional test in any event.

“Assuming, without deciding, that Aloha B&B established a prima facie case of substantial burden to Young’s exercise of religion, we conclude that the application of [the Hawaii civil rights law] to Aloha B&B’s conduct in this case satisfies the strict scrutiny standard,” wrote Nakamura,” since “Hawaii has a compelling state interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the legislature has declared “the practice of discrimination because of sexual orientation in public accommodations is against public policy.”  The court concluded that the civil rights law “is narrowly tailored to achieve Hawaii’s compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the law “responds precisely to the substantive problem which legitimately concerns the State.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, so Young took the case to the Supreme Court, posing two questions: “Whether holding Mrs. Young liable without fair notice that her actions could be unlawful violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and whether the Commission’s efforts to punish Mrs. Young for exercising her religious beliefs in her own home violate   the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause?”

The first question reflected Young’s belief that she was covered by the exemption for rental operations with four or fewer bedrooms, so, as she claimed, when she turned down Cervelli and Bufford she sincerely believed her business was not covered by the civil rights law, and it would be fundamentally unfair to impose liability on her.  The court of appeals had easily rejected this argument, and it is not the kind of argument that the Supreme Court was likely to address as a failure of procedural due process of law.

The second question was intended to tempt members of the Court who have been calling for a reconsideration of the Employment Division v. Smith precedent, which was controversial when decided and actually led to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Congress and similar laws by many state legislatures.  Prior to that ruling, the Supreme Court had required the government to show a “compelling interest” when laws that burden free exercise of religion were challenged in court.

Employment Division was seen by many as a sharp departure from prior precedents, liberal Supreme Court justices dissented from the Court’s opinion by Justice Scalia, and a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum among religious organizations successfully lobbied Congress to pass RFRA, ultimately reimposing the “strict scrutiny” standard when federal laws impose a substantial burden or religious free exercise.

Despite calls for reconsidering Employment Division, most prominently by Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June, this petition evidently did not tempt at least four members of the Court to use this case as a vehicle to expand the religious freedom of business owners to turn down customers whom they found objectionable based on the owners’ religious beliefs. The Court avoided such reconsideration last Term in Masterpiece Cakeshop by deciding that case on a different ground.  Of course, if the Court wants to address these issues directly, they still have pending a petition to review an Oregon state court ruling against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 289 Or. App. 507, review denied by Oregon S. Ct., 363 Or. 224 (2018), so we continue to wait for another shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, unless a settlement is negotiated, Young faces a renewed proceeding in the Hawaii circuit court to determine what damages, if any, she will be ordered to pay to Cervelli and Bufford for unlawfully discriminating against them.

Liberty Counsel Revives Assault on New Jersey Conversion Therapy Ban

Posted on: February 12th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Usually the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review a lower court decision puts an end to the case, but Liberty Counsel, a right-wing religious group that represents psychologists in New Jersey who want to provide conversion therapy to “change” people from gay to straight, has seized upon an opening created by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last June to revive their constitutional attack on New Jersey’s law prohibiting licensed professional counselors from providing such therapy to minors.  On February 11, the organization petitioned the Supreme Court to effectively reopen the case.  King v. Governor of New Jersey & Garden State Equality.

Governor Chris Christie signed the measure into law on August 19, 2013.  Liberty Counsel promptly filed suit on behalf of two psychologists and their patients, as well as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and the American Association of Christian Counselors, claiming that the measure violated the constitutional rights of plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding no constitutional violation (see 981 F. Supp. 2d 296), and the plaintiffs fared no better before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Newark, which upheld Judge Wolfson’s ruling on September 11, 2014 (see 767 F. 3d 216).

Wolfson found the measure to be a regulation of professional conduct, only incidentally affecting speech.  As such, she held that the challenge should be rejected as long as the legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law.  She found that the legislative record about the inefficacy and harm of such therapy was sufficient to meet the test.

On appeal, the three-judge panel disagreed with Judge Wolfson to the extent of finding that the ban as applied to “talk therapy” is a content-based regulation of speech, not just a regulation of conduct with an incidental effect on speech.  But the appeals court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute was consequently subject to the strict scrutiny test, under which it would be presumed to be unconstitutional unless New Jersey could prove that it was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.

Instead, wrote Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith for the panel, the speech involved in providing conversion therapy is “professional speech,” subject to state regulation.  As such, the court ruled, the state could prevail under the less demanding “heightened scrutiny” test by showing that the ban substantially advanced an important state interest, and that the legislative record was sufficient to uphold the law.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court for review.  That petition was denied on May 4, 2015 (see 135 S. Ct. 2048).  The Supreme Court also denied a petition to review a similar decision by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by, among others, Dr. David Pickup, in which that court rejected a similar challenge to California’s ban on conversion therapy.  (Dr. Pickup is also a plaintiff in the case challenging a conversion therapy ban in Tampa, Florida, about which we blogged earlier.)  Judge Wolfson relied on the 9th Circuit’s ruling in finding that conversion therapy statutes can be upheld as within the traditional state power to regulate the conduct of licensed professionals.

More than a dozen jurisdictions have since passed such bans, and attempts to challenge them in the courts have similarly been unsuccessful.  But the Supreme Court may have upset this trend by its ruling on June 26, 2018, in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361.  NIFLA challenged a California law that required licensed pregnancy-related clinics to inform their clients about the availability of publicly-funded family-planning services, including contraception and abortions, and non-licensed facilities to provide notices stating that they were not licensed by the state.  The Supreme Court agreed with NIFLA that the statute violated the 1st Amendment protection for freedom of speech by compelling the plaintiffs to speak the government’s message.

In defending the statute, California relied on the conversion therapy decisions from the 3rd and 9th Circuits.  This provoked Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 5-4 majority, to reject the idea that “professional speech” in the context of regulated, licensed professions was entitled to any lesser constitutional protection than other speech.  After summarizing these and other cases, Thomas wrote: “But this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’  This court has ‘been reluctant to mark of new categories of speech for diminished constitutional protection.’”

Thomas went on to write that there were only two circumstances in which the Supreme Court had provided lesser protection to “professional speech”: “First, our precedents have applied more deferential review to some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech.’  Second, under our precedents, States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”

Thus, at least by implication, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled last June that states passing conversion therapy bans will have to meet the demanding strict scrutiny test when they are challenged under the 1st Amendment.  Unless, of course, they can show that this is really a regulation of professional conduct with incidental effect on speech, an approach that worked in the 9th Circuit.  Although Thomas’s comments in NIFLA suggest this may be a difficult task, it is not necessarily impossible.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s NIFLA ruling, Liberty Counsel jumped into action to try to revive its challenge to the New Jersey law.  First, it filed a Motion with the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, demanding that it recall the Mandate it had issued to the District Court in 2014 to dismiss the challenge to the statute.  Liberty Counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling had “abrogated” the 3rd Circuit’s decision, thus the 3rd Circuit should acknowledge that its 2014 ruling was erroneous and correct the situation by “recalling” its Mandate.  Although Liberty Counsel does not explicitly state what would come next, presumably this would mean reversing the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the state and resetting the case for argument under the strict scrutiny test.  The 3rd Circuit denied this Motion without a hearing or a written opinion.

Undaunted, Liberty Counsel then sought rehearing en banc (by the full 3rd Circuit bench), which was also denied, on November 13, 2018.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court on February 11, arguing that the 3rd Circuit “abused its discretion” by refusing to take action based on the Supreme Court’s “abrogation” of the 3rd Circuit’s prior opinion.  Liberty Counsel cites numerous cases in which it claims federal courts of appeals have “recalled” their mandates from lower courts after a Supreme Court decision in a similar case has rejected the reasoning underlying their earlier decision.  Liberty Counsel argues that the current situation is particularly stark because the Supreme Court has not only rejected the reasoning of the earlier case, but has cited and quoted from the earlier decision while doing so.

On the other hand, Justice Thomas did not use the term “abrogate” and his opinion in NIFLA recognizes that there may be circumstances in which state regulation of professional speech may be constitutional.  The 9th Circuit’s reasoning in the Pickup case, focused on the regulation of professional conduct rather than speech, may be such an instance, and the 3rd Circuit’s case could be reconsidered under such a standard.  In this case, Liberty Counsel may be following the lead of West Publishing Company, which operates the Westlaw legal research system.  If one finds the 3rd Circuit’s decision in Westlaw, one sees, in bold red above the citation of the case, the phrase “Abrogated by National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, U.S., June 26, 2018” and the characterization “Severe Negative Treatment.”

Liberty Counsel’s petition, a bit disingenuously, assumes this means that the New Jersey law is unconstitutional, but all it really means is that the 3rd Circuit applied too lenient a standard in ruling on the case and should have applied the strict scrutiny test to be in line with the Supreme Court ruling in NIFLA.

In its argument to the Supreme Court, Liberty Counsel contends that failing to grant the petition and to require the 3rd Circuit to “recall” its mandate will have harmful rippling effects throughout the nation.  It points to the steady progression of new state and local laws that have been enacted in reliance on the “incorrect” decisions by the 3rd and 9th Circuits, which it asserts will “chill” the ability of conversion therapy practitioners to “offer” this “cure” to their patients.

In January, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone relied on the Supreme Court’s NIFLA decision in her report recommending that the U.S. District Court issue a preliminary injunction against the application of the Tampa, Florida, conversion therapy ban to practitioners who provide “talk therapy.”  The complaint filed in federal court in Brooklyn last month by Alliance Defending Freedom, challenging New York City’s ordinance, is devised to raise the same arguments.  And it is predictable that either ADF or Liberty Counsel will file suit in an attempt to block the new state law enacted last month in New York raising similar arguments.

Although Liberty Counsel couches its petition as an attempt to have the court settle a dispute among lower courts about the proper way to respond when one of their decisions is substantially undermined in its reasoning by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, it is at heart an attempt to relitigate the question whether conversion therapy practitioners have a 1st Amendment right to ply their trade free of government restrictions.  It is a blatant attempt to get the issue of conversion therapy back before the Supreme Court now that Trump’s appointments have solidified the conservative majority.  And, at that, it is a test of science against homophobia and transphobia.