May has brought a flood of litigation over LGBT rights in the federal courts. During the first few days of the month, half a dozen federal lawsuits were filed addressing either the transgender bathroom issue or continuing state-level resistance to marriage equality.
First out of the box was a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago on May 4 by two right-wing litigation groups – The Thomas More Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom – challenging the U.S. Department of Education’s agreement with Township School District 211 that settled a lawsuit about transgender restroom access. Under the settlement agreement the school district will allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity. The case stirred considerable local controversy, and the litigation groups were able to recruit five students and their parents, banding together as “Students and Parents for Privacy,” to challenge the settlement. They argue that the students have a fundamental constitutional right of “bodily privacy” that is violated when transgender students show up in the restroom, that the settlement violates the parents’ fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their children by exposing the children to such shocking things, and, perhaps most importantly, that the Education Department’s position that gender identity discrimination violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, a federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools that receive federal money, is a misinterpretation of that statute and was not validly adopted.
This last argument rests on a plausible reading of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute that specifies procedures that federal agencies must follow when they adopt new regulations. While the Education Department has not adopted a regulation on the subject, the plaintiffs make a strong argument that its enforcement of its interpretation is tantamount to a regulation. The plaintiffs argue that the Department is not free to take such a position without going through the formalities of the Administrative Procedure Act, because the Department is enforcing its view as if it was a regulation and because the position it is taking was consistently rejected for the first several decades of Title IX’s existence. (The statute dates from the early 1970s.) If the courts agree, the Department would have to go through a time-consuming process that could stretch out over many months in order to adopt a valid regulation, and then the regulation would be subject to challenge in the federal appeals courts, which could tie it up in litigation for years.
On the other hand, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments have already been rejected by the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, when it ruled on April 19 that a federal court in Virginia should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX in a case brought by a transgender boy seeking appropriate restroom access in his Virginia high school. That ruling turned on the court’s agreement with the Education Department that existing statutory provisions and regulations (which allow schools to maintain separate restrooms for males and females) were ambiguous as to how to treat transgender people, justifying the Department in adopting a position consistent with its view of the purpose of the law to provide equal educational opportunity. The 4th Circuit held that the district court should defer to the Department’s judgment, since it was not a clearly erroneous interpretation of the statute and the existing regulations. In the Chicago lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the statute and regulations are not ambiguous, but this rests on their assertion that the Congress that passed Title IX so long ago could not have intended any meaning for the term “sex” other than “biological sex” as determined at birth. The 4th Circuit, by contrast, found that the term “sex” without any explanatory statutory definition could have a variety of meanings depend upon the context in which it was used, and is thus inherently ambiguous.
Chicago is in the 7th Circuit, so the 4th Circuit’s ruling is not binding on the lawsuit filed there. More than thirty years ago, the 7th Circuit ruled in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that discrimination because of gender identity did not violate the sex discrimination provision and the federal court in Chicago may find itself constrained, if not directly bound, by that precedent under a different but parallel statute, although thirty years of developments in the courts have arguably rendered it obsolete. Federal courts have generally held that the term “sex” in Title VII and Title IX should be given the same meaning, and that cases construing one of those statutes can be consulted when construing the other.
Just five days later, on May 9, there was a flurry of new litigation in the U.S. District Courts of North Carolina, focused on the bathroom provisions of H.B. 2. H.B. 2 was introduced in the state legislature, approved by both houses and signed by Governor Pat McCrory in one day, March 23. It wiped out local government bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, quashed the right of North Carolinians to sue for any kind of discrimination in state courts, and prohibited localities from adopting their own rules on government contracting and minimum wages. Most controversially, however, it provided that in all public facilities with restrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms and the like, multi-occupancy facilities must be segregated by biological sex, defined as the sex recorded on a person’s birth certificate. The state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, denounced the measure as discriminatory and said his office would not defend it.
Lambda Legal and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina on March 28, challenging portions of H.B. 2 under the 14th Amendment and Title IX, and subsequently one of the transgender plaintiffs in the case also filed charges of discrimination under Title VII with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (which had ruled last year that Title VII requires employers to allow transgender employees to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity). Within a few weeks, the 4th Circuit’s April 19 ruling in the Virginia Title IX case placed the legality of the bathroom provisions in doubt. The controversy surrounding H.B. 2, especially the bathroom provision and the preemption of local anti-discrimination ordinances, caused adverse reactions that echoed throughout the country as governors and mayors prohibited official travel to North Carolina, some major employers announced reconsideration of plans to locate facilities there, and conventions and major musical performers cancelled activities in the state. But Governor McCrory and the Republican state legislative leaders rejected calls to rescind the statute.
The Justice Department weighed in early in May, when the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to Governor McCrory, who had been vigorously defending the law in national media, informing him that the Justice Department considered the bathroom provision to violate federal sex discrimination laws and demanding a response by May 9. Governor McCrory’s response was to file a lawsuit on May 9, seeking a declaration from the federal district court in the Eastern District of North Carolina that the bathroom provisions did not violate federal civil rights laws. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch then held a press conference at which she unveiled a new lawsuit by the federal government against North Carolina, filed in the Middle District of North Carolina, seeking a declaration that the bathroom provision violates federal law. Lynch’s statement, which quickly went viral on the internet, promised transgender people that the federal government recognized them and was standing behind them, thus putting the full weight of the Justice Department on the line backing the Education Department and the EEOC in their interpretations of “sex discrimination” under their respective statutes.
The Justice Department will probably move to transfer McCrory’s case to the Middle District of North Carolina, where it can be consolidated with the Justice Department’s lawsuit and perhaps the pending Lambda/ACLU lawsuit. There was another lawsuit defending H.B. 2 filed on May 9 in the Eastern District court by North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), but it is hard to conceive how they could have standing to bring a federal lawsuit on their own, so it is likely to be dismissed if the government makes a motion to that effect.
Meanwhile, there were also new litigation developments in Mississippi, challenging House Bill 1523, the so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.” HB 1523 was passed in response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision of last June 26. Subsequent to Obergefell, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court injunction against the state of Mississippi’s enforcement of its anti-gay marriage ban, and marriage equality came to the state. State legislators quickly went to work undermining this by devising H.B. 1523, which essentially gives government officials, businesses, and religious believers permission to discriminate against same-sex couples, provided that the discriminators have a sincere religious belief that marriage should only involve one man and one woman. The measure is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.
The ACLU lawsuit filed on May 9 in the federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, charges that H.B. 1523 violates the 14th Amendment “by subjecting the lawful marriages of same-sex couples to different terms and conditions than those accorded to different-sex couples.” In effect, Mississippi has set up a “separate but equal” framework, which “imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi.” The lawsuit names as defendant the Mississippi State Registrar of Vital Records, Judy Moulder.
Among its many discriminatory provisions, H.B. 1523 provides that government employees “who wish to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples” will be required to Moulder, and she will be required to maintain a list of officials who have recused themselves from providing same-sex couples with the services that are routinely provided to different-sex couples, and they will be excused from providing these services to same-sex couples. These recusant officials are also charged by the statute with a requirement to make arrangements to insure that same-sex couples do receive the services to which they are entitled, but the statute does not establish any mechanism to ensure compliance with this provision.
The ACLU lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that H.B. 1523 is unconstitutional “on its face” and an injunction against it going into effect. It was immediately followed by more court action, as New York attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represents the plaintiffs in the Mississippi marriage equality case, filed a motion in federal district court on May 10, asking Judge Carlton Reeves to reopen the case so they can name Judy Moulder as an additional defendant and modify his injunction to require the state to come up with the necessary procedures to ensure that same-sex couples who seek to marry will not encounter any delays due to recusals on religious grounds by state officials. Indeed, she argues, anyone recusing themselves from serving same-sex couples should be disqualified from serving different-sex couples as well, as failure to do so would violate the obligations of all state officials to provide non-discriminatory service. The motion also asks that the list of recusant officials be posted on the website of the Registrar of Vital Records so that couples won’t have to subject themselves to the indignity of being turned away when they seek marriage licenses.