As the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 Term began in October, it looked like a banner term for LGBTQ-related cases at the nation’s highest court. Petitions were pending asking the Court to address a wide range of issues, including whether LGBTQ people are protected against discrimination under federal sex discrimination laws covering employment (from Georgia) and educational opportunity (from Wisconsin), whether LGBTQ people in Mississippi had standing to seek a federal order to prevent a viciously anti-gay religiously-motivated law from going into effect, and whether the Texas Supreme Court erred in holding that Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), did not necessarily require a municipal employer to treat same-sex married couples the same as different-sex married couples in their employee benefits plans. The Court had already granted review in a “gay wedding cake” case from Colorado (Masterpiece Cakeshop, which was argued on December 5), and another petition involving a Washington State florist who refused to provide floral decorations for a same-sex wedding was waiting in the wings.
But the hopes for a blockbuster term have rapidly faded. In December, the Court declined to hear the employee benefits case and the Title VII employment discrimination case. And now in January, the Court has declined to hear the Mississippi cases, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, and the Wisconsin case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, has settled, with the school district agreeing to withdraw its Supreme Court petition. It may be that the only LGBTQ-related issue that the Court decides this term is the one it heard argued in December: whether a business owner’s religious objections to same-sex marriage or his right to freedom of speech would privilege him to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. An opinion expected sometime in the coming months.
On January 8, the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barber v. Bryant, 860 F.3d 345 (5th Cir.), petition for rehearing en banc denied, 872 F.3d 671 (2017), which had dismissed a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s infamous H.B. 1523, a law enacted in 2016 that protects people who discriminate against LGBTQ people because of their religious or moral convictions. The 5th Circuit had ruled that none of the plaintiffs – either organizations or individuals – in two cases challenging the Mississippi law had “standing” to bring the lawsuits in federal court.
H.B. 1523, which was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016, identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and protects against “discrimination” by the state anybody who acts in accord with those beliefs in a wide range of circumstances. The beliefs, as stated in the statute, are: “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” Among other things, the law would protect government officials who rely on these beliefs to deny services to individuals, and would preempt the handful of local municipal laws in the state that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, so that victims of discrimination would have no local law remedy. Mississippi does not have a state law banning sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, so H.B. 1523 in relation to private businesses and institutions was mainly symbolic when it came to activity taking place outside of the cities of Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford, or off the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.
Two groups of plaintiffs brought constitutional challenges against the law in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, where the case came before Judge Carlton W. Reeves, the same judge who ruled for plaintiffs in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage a few years earlier. He issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of H.B. 1523 on June 30, 2016, the day before it was to go into effect, finding that it would violate the 1st Amendment by establishing particular religious beliefs as part of the state’s law. The plaintiffs also challenged it on Equal Protection grounds. Judge Reeves refused to stay his preliminary injunction, and so did the 5th Circuit.
The state appealed the grant of preliminary injunction to the 5th Circuit, where a unanimous three-judge panel ruled on June 22, 2017, that the district court did not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction because, according to the opinion by Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, none of the plaintiffs could show that they had suffered or were imminently likely to suffer a “concrete and particularized injury in fact,” which was necessary to confer the necessary “standing” to challenge the law in federal court. In the absence of standing, he wrote, the preliminary injunction must be dissolved and the case dismissed.
The plaintiffs asked the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the ruling en banc, but the circuit judges voted 12-2 not to do so, announcing that result on September 29. The dissenters, in an opinion by Judge James L. Dennis, bluntly stated that “the panel decision is wrong” and “misconstrues and misapplies the Establishment Clause precedent.” Indeed, wrote Judge Dennis, “its analysis creates a conflict between our circuit and our sister circuits on the issue of Establishment Clause standing.”
Judge Dennis pressed home the point by citing numerous cases from other circuits which, he held, would support allowing the plaintiffs in this case to seek a preliminary injunction blocking the law from going into effect. This gave hope to the plaintiffs that they might be able to get the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 5th Circuit, since one of the main criteria for the Supreme Court granting review is to resolve a split in authority between the circuit courts on important points of federal law.
However, on January 8 the Court denied the petitions the two plaintiff groups had filed, without any explanation or open dissent, leaving unresolved important questions about how and when people can mount a federal court challenge to a law of this sort. In the meantime, shortly after the 5th Circuit had denied reconsideration, H.B. 1523 went into effect on October 10.
A challenge to H.B. 1523 continues in the District Court before Judge Reeves, as new allegations by the plaintiffs require reconsideration of their standing and place in question, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2017 ruling, Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075, whether the law imposes unconstitutional burdens on LGBTQ people seeking to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights.
Two days after the Court announced it would not review the 5th Circuit ruling, the parties in Whitaker, 858 F. 3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), involving the legal rights of transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, announced a settlement. Under their agreement the school district will withdraw its cert petition.
The Supreme Court had been scheduled to hear a similar transgender student case last March, Gloucester County School Bd. v. G. G. ex rel. Grimm, but that case was dropped from the docket after the Trump Administration withdrew a Guidance on Title IX compliance that had been issued by the Obama Administration. Since the 4th Circuit’s decision in Gavin Grimm’s case had been based on that Guidance rather than on a direct judicial interpretation of the statute, the Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit’s ruling and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration. See 137 S. Ct. 1239 (Mar. 6, 2017). That court, in turn, sent it back to the district court, which dismissed the case as moot since Grimm had graduated in the interim.
Ashton Whitaker is a transgender boy who graduated from Tremper High School in the Kenosha School District last June. His case would have given the Supreme Court a second chance to address the Title IX issue. Whitaker transitioned while in high school and asked to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom facilities, but district officials told him that there was an unwritten policy restricting bathroom use based on biological sex. He sued the district under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. U.S. District Judge Panela Pepper (E.D. Wisconsin) issued a preliminary injunction on Whitaker’s behalf in September 2016, and refused to stay it pending appeal. See 2016 WL 5239829 (Sept. 22, 2016).
On May 30, 2017, the 7th Circuit upheld Judge Pepper’s ruling, finding that even though the Trump Administration had withdrawn the prior Title IX Guidance, both Title IX and the 14th Amendment require the school to recognize Whitaker as a boy and to allow him to use boys’ restroom facilities. The school district petitioned the Supreme Court on August 25 to review the 7th Circuit’s decision, even though Whitaker had graduated in June.
In the meantime, Judge Pepper ordered the parties to mediation to attempt a settlement. Whitaker’s graduation in June undoubtedly contributed to the pressure to settle, and the parties asked the Supreme Court several times to extend the deadline for Whitaker to file a formal response to the petition as the negotiations continued. According to press reports on January 10, the case settled for $800,000 and an agreement that the district would withdraw its petition.
The settlement and withdrawal of the petition leaves the 7th Circuit’s opinion standing as the first federal circuit court ruling to hold on the merits that Title IX and the 14th Amendment require public schools to respect the gender identity of their students and to allow students to use sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity. However, lacking a Supreme Court ruling on the point this decision is only binding in the three states of the 7th Circuit: Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, the same three states bound by another 7th Circuit last year holding that employment discrimination because of sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.