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These are the stories of LGBTQ people who need the Equality Act’s protections

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Congressional Democrats reintroduced a sweeping nondiscrimination bill last week to bolster protections for LGBTQ Americans. If passed into law, the bill would clarify existing protections and fill the gaps in federal nondiscrimination laws.

The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, federal programs, jury service, public accommodations, and credit and lending. It would also update the law to include protections against discrimination in public spaces and services like retail stores, transportation services, banks, and legal services.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination and gender identity in employment and housing. Twenty states and D.C. explicitly prohibit discrimination in public accommodations. Only 14 states have non-discrimination laws covering credit discrimination.

A 2017 nationally representative survey conducted by the Center for American Progress found that among those who experienced sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination in the last year, 43.7 percent said it negatively affected their physical well-being. Nearly 40 percent said it negatively impacted their school environment and 52.8 percent reported that it negatively impacted their work environment. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

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LGBTQ people have successfully argued that they’re covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the past. The term “sex-based stereotypes,” for example, has been used in cases to defend the rights of both queer couples and trans people. In 2017, a federal appeals court ruled for the first time that the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ workers from employment discrimination. Judge Richard Posner wrote at the time, “I don’t see why firing a lesbian because she is in the subset of women who are lesbian should be thought any less a form of sex discrimination than firing a woman because she’s a woman.”

Still, the legal landscape’s protections right now are unclear and uneven. The Equality Act would bolster protections for LGBTQ people, and would help prevent stories like the following from happening again.

Employment
In 2013, a transgender woman named Aimee Stephens told her funeral home employer that she was going to dress differently to better reflect her gender. Her employer responded by firing her and offering her a severance package, which she did not accept. She worked there for six years, and co-workers testified that she was a “very good embalmer” and that people were happy with her work.

Stephens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then, the EEOC sued the funeral home. In 2018, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor and said, it is impossible to fire a worker based on their status as a trans person without an employer participating in sex-based discrimination.

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“Discrimination ‘because of sex’ inherently includes discrimination against employees because of a change in their sex,” the court said.

The lawyers representing the funeral home have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice recently disagreed with the idea that queer workers are covered by the civil rights law. In 2017, the department filed a brief in the case Zarda v. Altitude Express, arguing that the federal law’s prohibition of sex discrimination does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Zarda v. Altitude Express centers on Donald Zarda, a New York skydiver who is now deceased. In 2010, Zarda said he was fired because of his sexual orientation. Given his physical proximity to students during the skydive, Zarda said he thought it would make female clients more comfortable to know about his sexual orientation before the skydive. One female client told her boyfriend of Zarda’s sexuality and the boyfriend decided to complain to Altitude Express. Then, the company fired him.

The Second Circuit did not accept the argument that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on sexual orientation. The LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal requested that the ruling be reconsidered, but the Justice Department argued against including sexual orientation under the civil rights law. It also referred to the Equality Act of 1974 sponsored by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), which would have prohibited discrimination on the account of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation in public accommodations, federally assisted programs, housing, and financing. The bill died in committee.

“Congress neither added sexual orientation as a protected trait nor defined discrimination on the basis of sex to include sexual orientation discrimination,” the Justice Department wrote in its brief. “… In fact, every Congress from 1974 to the present has declined to enact proposed legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation.”

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Clarification from Congress would certainly help strengthen protections for LGBTQ people and make it more difficult to argue that it’s unclear whether LGBTQ people have these rights.

Housing
A married couple in Denver — Rachel Smith, a trans woman, and Tonya Smith, a cis woman — were looking for a new home with their two children in 2015.

When the couple found the right home, a rental townhouse, Tonya Smith emailed the landlord and described her family, including the fact that Rachel Smith is transgender. The couple visited the townhouse and met a couple that lived nearby. But the Smiths said that after they returned, they received an email from the landlord telling them they were not welcome to rent the townhouse because the neighbors were concerned. The landlord claimed their family would be the talk of the town, making it difficult for their neighbors to “keep a low profile.”

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore ruled that they were protected by the Federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, and wrote, “Such stereotypical norms are no different from other stereotypes associated with women, such as the way she should dress or act (e.g., that a woman should not be overly aggressive, or should not act macho), and are products of sex stereotyping.”

But other housing discrimination cases involving LGBTQ people have not succeeded. In January, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from a married lesbian couple in Missouri, Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance, who said they were denied housing by a senior living community called Friendship Village. According to their lawsuit, they were denied occupancy in 2016 because Friendship Village has a policy that defines marriage as “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.”

The couple claimed Friendship Village’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act and Missouri Human Rights Act. But U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton said the Fair Housing Act did not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Given the courts’ disagreements on whether queer couples are covered by the Fair Housing Act, it would make a difference for Congress to weigh in through the Equality Act.

Public accommodations
Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the part of the law focusing on public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, and sports stadiums — doesn’t cover protections against sex discrimination, but only includes race, color, religion, and national origin. That means there is no legal remedy for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations under current federal law.

In 2013, Ally Robledo, a trans woman, was denied access to an Idaho grocery store, and workers called the police on her when she used the restroom. Lewiston Police Captain Roger Lanier referred to Robledo as a “a male subject who was using the female restroom” and said customers were uncomfortable. She was given a no trespass order after leaving the grocery store.

Robledo said at the time that she doubted it would have been more socially acceptable for her to use the men’s restroom and that when she has used the men’s restroom, “I found myself in a lot of dangerous situations.”

The Equality Act would protect Robledo, and others like her. The legislation would be the first national nondiscrimination bill of its kind for LGBTQ people.

The Equality Act has been introduced before — first in 2015 — but has not been able to get through the Republican-controlled Congress. Last fall, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is now House speaker, said that if Democrats won the majority they would make the Equality Act a top priority. If the bill does pass the House, it’s unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would even bring it up for a vote. His press secretary would not give NBC News a yes or no answer.

According to a 2018 PRRI survey, 71 percent of Americans said they favor laws protecting LGBTQ people against discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment. But 64 percent of Republicans said business owners should be able to refuse service to gay and lesbian people compared to 24 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of independents.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering gender and sexuality. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, and In These Times.

‘Religious freedom’ arguments kill Nebraska’s LGBTQ employment protections bill

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Nebraska is one of more than two dozen states that have no LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the state level. That’s not changing anytime soon, as a bill to create employment protections came to an abrupt end this week.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D) introduced LB 627 in January this year. The legislation would have updated all relevant state statutes to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Pansing Brooks, whose son is gay, pleaded with fellow lawmakers Tuesday to consider the bill.

Pansing Brooks nearly secured the 25-vote majority she needed for passage, but could not find the 33 votes she needed to overcome a filibuster-ending cloture motion. Opponents of the bill claimed that it would be used to target religious business owners in the state and punish them for their beliefs.

Sen. Robert Clements (R) suggested that LGBTQ people didn’t deserve protections because he wasn’t aware of any science suggesting they were “born at birth that way.” Moreover, he took umbrage that “what the Bible teaches, and Christians and Jews have affirmed for 2,000 years, is being called hateful,” claiming the bill constituted “reverse discrimination.”

After reading an email from a constituent claiming that the protections would punish people of faith for their religious beliefs, Sen. Dave Murman (R) also claimed the bill “would threaten small-business owners with liability for alleged discrimination based on perceived gender.”

Many of the lawmakers who supported LB 627 warned of a brain drain, with young people leaving the state to find a more welcoming community. Sen. Megan Hunt (D), who identifies as bisexual and Nebraska’s first-ever LGBTQ senator, is herself a business owner and employs 12 young women, and knows first-hand how challenging it is to keep young people in the state. “I think there’s a lot to learn about why Nebraska struggles to keep young people here,” she said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) similarly recalled the story of an attorney who lost a position at a Nebraska law firm after he inquired about same-sex partner benefits, and talked about a constituent in his district who was fired from a fast-food restaurant after it came out he had a boyfriend.

But opponents of the bill were not convinced. Murman instead insisted that young people were supposedly flocking to Nebraska because of the state’s conservative values.

Though LB 627 is essentially dead for the session, Pansing Brooks is still optimistic that the debate helped create some change that will allow it to pass in the future. Writing on Facebook after its defeat, she took hope that the politics of the state were changing and that “Nebraska will ultimately see the light.”

“I will continue to fight with every fiber of my being for the protection of LGBTQ people’s civil rights,” she wrote.

Democrats in Congress are expected to introduce the Equality Act soon, which would create nationwide LGBTQ protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit. Though the bill has previously been introduced in the past two sessions of Congress, Republicans never brought it up for a vote.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

Missouri Supreme Court opens the door to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a gay employee’s case alleging sex discrimination in the workplace could proceed, reversing a lower court ruling and establishing a new precedent that could help protect embattled non-heterosexual workers in the future.

The court also ruled on a separate but similar case involving a transgender student who claimed his school discriminated against him by blocking him from bathrooms and other facilities, saying the student deserved a fair hearing.

At stake in the first case is the extent to which gay, lesbian, and bi people in Missouri are protected on the basis of their sex. State law does not extend employment nondiscrimination protections on the basis of “sexual orientation,” meaning it’s fully legal to fire someone based on their sexuality. But in this case, while the plaintiff acknowledged that he is gay, he claimed that he faced discrimination because of sex stereotyping, not because of his sexual orientation.

Harold Lampley, an employee in the state’s Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division, filed a complaint arguing that he was harassed at work for his non-stereotypical behaviors, noting that employees with stereotypical behaviors were not similarly treated. He claimed to have experienced regular verbal abuse and forced closed-door meetings about his performance. After he complained, he also alleged that he experienced retaliation in the form of poor performance evaluations not consistent with his work.

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Lampley’s friend and coworker Rene Frost likewise claimed that she suffered discrimination merely for her affiliation with Lampley. The employer allegedly violated her privacy by publicly announcing her performance review. After she complained, she said she faced retaliation, such as having her desk moved away from Lampley’s and other coworkers with whom she collaborated. Frost claimed she was also banned from eating lunch with Lampley and allegedly faced similar verbal abuse and harassment.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights concluded this discrimination wasn’t actionable because Lampley’s sexual orientation isn’t protected, and a lower court agreed. It relied on a similar ruling against a recycling company employee named James Pittman, who claimed he had been called a “cocksucker,” asked if he had AIDS, and harassed for having a same-sex partner. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Pittman could find no relief under state law, and a circuit court concluded the same must be true for Lampley and Frost.

But in Tuesday’s ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that being gay does not preclude an employee from protection on the basis of “sex,”which includes sex stereotyping. “[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination,” the majority wrote.

“Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping,” they explained. The Commission was wrong not to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their sex-stereotyping claim, and the Court ordered it to issue Lampley and Frost right-to-sue letters.

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The second case on which the Court ruled this week similarly focused on the debate over protections on the basis of sex.

Student “R.M.A.” filed a complaint against Blue Springs School District for denying him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms. The school initially countered both that “gender identity” was not protected under the state’s “sex” protections and also that it should not be considered a “public accommodation” and thus the nondiscrimination law should not apply to it at all. Without specifying which reasoning informed its opinion, a lower court dismissed R.M.A.’s complaint outright.

In a 5-2 ruling this week, the state Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. Rather than considering sex stereotyping, the majority recognized that once a transgender individual has legal changed their sex, as R.M.A. has, they are protected on the basis of that sex. In a footnote, the majority called out the dissenting justices for relying on a distinction between “legal sex” and “biological sex” that is not actually found anywhere in the law. R.M.A. is a boy, and if he’s not being allowed to use boys’ facilities, then he deserves his day in court.

This pair of rulings opens the door to far greater protection for LGBTQ people under Missouri state law — but with some limitations.

The first ruling, for example, accepts the premise that sexual orientation is not itself connected to sex stereotyping, even though expectations about the gender of a person’s romantic partners are obvious stereotypes themselves. This means that while Lampley and other gay, lesbian, and bi workers will now have an opportunity to pursue discrimination claims moving forward, it will require them to prove that they were targeted because of sex stereotypes not directly connected to their sexual orientation.

Likewise, the ruling in favor of R.M.A. seems to rely on transgender people legally changing their sex designation before they are eligible for protection. State law requires transgender people provide proof of surgery to update their birth certificates, although some judges have granted the new gender markers without that requirement. This means that there may still be inconsistent financial and medical obstacles to qualifying for legal protection.

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Neither ruling weighs the merits of the discrimination claims, so it also remains to be seen whether Lampley or R.M.A. will prevail once their complaints are given due consideration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

Federal judge blocks military from discharging service members with HIV

Friday, February 15th, 2019

A federal judge in Virginia ruled Friday that the U.S. military must suspend its practice of discharging service members because they have HIV.

The injunction followed a lawsuit filed by two airmen who learned in November that they would not be permitted to continuing serving in the military because of their HIV status. This is despite the fact that both were in treatment and had undetectable viral loads, making it virtually impossible for them to transmit the virus to others.

The discharges were part of a policy the Pentagon implemented last year colloquially known as “deploy or get out” (DOGO). It was an attempt to trim military personnel based on who was fit to serve across the globe at any given time. In the case of the two plaintiffs, they were deemed unfit to deploy despite supporting recommendations from medical personnel.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, a Clinton appointee, agreed the new policy discriminated against people with HIV. “Plaintiffs have made a strong and clear showing that defendants’ policies are irrational, outdated, and unnecessary and their decisions arbitrary, unreasoned, and inconsistent,” she wrote.

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The military, she explained, is operating “based on a flawed understanding of HIV” that is causing HIV-positive service members to be “irrationally and arbitrarily swept from the ranks.”

“Because of advances in medicine and science, HIV is no longer a progressive, terminal illness,” Brinkema wrote. Considering the medical expertise the plaintiffs brought forward, she noted that even if there is a sustained disruption to an HIV-positive service member receiving their medication, “an individual’s risk of transmitting HIV during military service remains vanishingly low.”

The military, by contrast, could not present any recorded cases of accidental HIV transmission on the battlefield.

Plenty of other medical conditions, including some that require regular medication, still allow for service members to be deployed. “There appears to be no reason why asymptomatic HIV is singled out for treatment so different from that given to other chronic conditions, all of which are subject to worsening upon disruption of daily medication,” the decision read.

Moreover, the military did not present a single expert of its own to justify the double standard. Brinkema chastised the military for citing a report that “contains no scientific data, evidence, or real-life accounts, but rather is a mere recitation of defendants’ policies.”

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In addition to the two plaintiffs, the LGBTQ military organization OutServe-SLDN also joined the lawsuit on behalf of several other service members who feared they might also be discharged based on their HIV status, and Brinkema agreed that the DOGO policy could potentially impact others.

The judge’s order enjoins the military from separating or discharging not only the plaintiffs, but any similarly situated active-duty member of the Air Force because of their HIV status.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

Virginia firefighter sues employer after allegedly losing his job to anti-gay discrimination

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Scott Philips-Gartner of Norfolk, Virginia tendered his resignation from the Norfolk Fire Department one year ago, after a 27-year career. He said it was because he was allegedly about to be fired for being gay.

Now, he’s suing the city.

A U.S. Navy veteran with war-time service, Gartner started working for Norfolk back in 1991 as a telecommunications officer, and was promoted several times in the years that followed, first to firefighter cardiac technician, then to Assistant Fire Marshall for the city. He was also a senior member of the Norfolk Bomb Squad. But as his complaint details, his career took a sudden, inexplicable downturn after he married his longtime partner in October 2014.

Gartner said he began to hear anti-gay comments form his superiors. Battalion Chief Roger Burris allegedly mocked Gartner for his sexual orientation. “In December 2015, Chief Burris verbally attacked Gartner’s sexuality during an open staff meeting by asking ‘Where is Ms. Gartner?’ which prompted other coworkers to laugh,” the suit offers as an example.

Gartner filed complaints about these incidents. He had also written a letter defending one of the female employees, Karen Barnes, who’d also claimed she had experienced gender discrimination by Burris. According to the complaint, it was Chief Ronnie Mann, a good friend of Burris’, who was charged with investigating the complaints against him.

It is unclear that anything ever came of these complaints, so Gartner and Barnes took their concerns to the city auditor, noting they had experienced further retaliation for the original complaints they’d filed.

The harassment continued well into July 2016.

That month, the complaint alleges, “Chief Burris said that he was going to place Gartner ‘in the middle of a large crowd of demonstrators holding up a sign,’ implying that he wished he could set Gartner up to be attacked by protestors that opposed homosexual marriage.”

Then, in March of 2017, Gartner was suddenly demoted. He was stripped entirely of his police powers, his duties as an IT administrator, his use of Norfolk city vehicles, his firearm, his computer, and his cell phone. The complaint claims that he was reassigned to a temporary facility miles from his usual office “with little to no job duties.” Two weeks later, his request for routine bomb squad training was likewise denied and he was also ordered to retire his service dog.

By November, Gartner learned Fire Chief Jeffrey Wise was planning to terminate him. He instead put in for his retirement, ending his career with the department this past January. He is 55 years old. According to Gartner’s attorney, Barry Montgomery, the harassment and demotions “disrupted his whole life.”

Gartner filed his suit in federal court, reflecting the multiple grievances he had also filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Neither the city nor the fire department was willing to comment when asked by The Virginian-Pilot, calling it a personnel matter.

In December of 2016, the city of Norfolk began protecting municipal employees from anti-gay discrimination, and the city council also passed a citywide law protecting LGBTQ workers the following summer. Neither, however, seemed to do anything to ameliorate the retaliation Gartner experienced during that time.

Virginia remains one of 26 states with no explicit protections for LGBTQ workers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

Supreme Court poised to drastically reverse LGBTQ equality

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

There are now six different cases implicating LGBTQ rights sitting before the Supreme Court. While the conservative-majority Court has not yet agreed to hear any of them, a circuit split between two of the cases and the fact that President Trump’s transgender military ban is at the heart of another strongly suggest at least one of them will advance to oral arguments.

The cases span a variety of different issues, including employment, education, military service, and public discrimination. At the heart at most of them is a question about whether discrimination against LGBTQ people counts as discrimination on the basis of “sex.” If the Court rules against queer people in just one of them, it could set a precedent that hinders LGBTQ equality across all of the different issues.

Such a decision would be the largest blow to queer rights since the Court upheld sodomy laws 32 years ago.

Employment discrimination

Two of the cases before the Court address the question of whether it’s legal to fire someone for being gay. Two different federal appellate courts arrived at different conclusions, increasing the likelihood that the Supreme Court will hear the cases to resolve the dispute.

In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a gay man argued that he was fired because of his sexual orientation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed Gerald Lynn Bostock’s case over a 1979 precedent, even though several Supreme Court cases since then have undermined that ruling, including a case that recognized “sex stereotyping” as a form of sex discrimination as well as a case that recognized same-sex sexual harassment as sex discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit insisted that “sexual orientation” enjoys no recognition under Title VII’s employment protections on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, this past February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit arrived at the exact opposite conclusion in Zarda v. Altitude Express. In that case, the appellate court found that skydiving instructor Donald Zarda, now deceased, was illegally fired for being gay under Title VII. The Trump administration had argued otherwise.

With this split in how to interpret federal law, it seems highly likely that the Supreme Court will want to resolve the conflict. While there are several compelling arguments that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation inherently requires making determinations on the basis of sex, it’s not clear that there are five justices who will agree.

While they’re at it, the Court may also consider R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a similar case about whether Title VII’s “sex” protections include discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed this past March that a Michigan funeral home violated the law when it fired employee Aimee Stephens for being transgender.

The Trump administration recently filed a brief in this case arguing that the Supreme Court should overturn the Sixth Circuit’s decision and rule that it’s legal to fire someone for being trans. But the administration also argued that the Court should consider Zarda or Bostock first — in other words, that it should resolve the question of whether sexual orientation is protected before it takes up gender identity.

In any of these cases, a ruling narrowly defining “sex” could set back employment rights for the entire LGBTQ community.

Trans military ban

On Friday, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to take the reins on the four different court battles over President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. The administration has lost in all of these different cases, including before two appellate courts, but it is now asking the Court to combine them all into the case Trump v. Karnoski.

The request is an unusual step, one that attempts to skip over the standard appeals process. LGBTQ groups chided the administration for being so desperate to discriminate that they’re willing to flout judicial norms and procedures. Nevertheless, given the Court’s willingness to cater to executive power in the Muslim ban cases, it might similarly be charitable to Trump’s claim that banning transgender people somehow improves military readiness, even though there’s no evidence to support that claim.

Another bakery

Just months after the Supreme Court granted a one-off victory to an anti-gay baker from Colorado, another bakery from Oregon is again asking the Court to grant it special permission to refuse service to same-sex couples. The details of Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries are almost identical to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

As ThinkProgress previously explained, Aaron and Melissa Klein — owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa — are asking for even more from the Court than Jack Phillips did last year. They argue that business owners have a right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs — against any group, not just on the basis of sexual orientation. A ruling along those lines would not only greatly undermine LGBTQ protections, but nondiscrimination protections for all vulnerable groups.

Transgender students

While the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is not defending the Kleins as it did Phillips last year, the anti-LGBTQ hate group is still heavily involved in this year’s round of cases. In addition to defending the funeral home in the transgender employment case, ADF is also representing a group of families challenging a Pennsylvania school’s inclusive policies.

In Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, ADF contends that allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity somehow violates the privacy of other students. As such, they’re asking for a mandate that schools segregate trans students to single-use restrooms. Like in the employment cases with Title VII, ADF is also asking the Court to rule that Title IX’s sex protections don’t extend to transgender students.

If the Supreme Court were to take all of these cases and the conservative majority were to prevail in them all, 2019 could look radically different for LGBTQ people. Nationwide, it’d become legal to fire them for who they are, to discriminate against them in schools, and to discriminate against them in public spaces — and several thousand transgender service members would lose their jobs.

For now, the Court is delaying making any decisions.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

Intertwined: The Labor Movement and LGBT Rights

Monday, June 25th, 2018

Through all the celebration of LGBTQ Pride this month, there’s been a valuable opportunity to reflect on the hard-fought victories, brutal setbacks, and tenacious struggles that have ultimately delivered so much for so many. And just as importantly, there has been time to think about what lies ahead in that fight for justice.

By the time I was elected president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1982, the fight for LGBTQ rights was already in full swing. Thirteen years after the Stonewall riots, activists were marching, shouting and organizing for the basic dignities they had been denied for so long. It was a groundbreaking movement for equal treatment in all the fundamental facets of life, from employment and housing to health care and personal safety.

These pioneers knew that change wasn’t simply going to be handed down from the halls of power or granted as an act of corporate benevolence. Change would only come when a diverse and united front stood together to demand it. In the face of unrepentant bigotry and blind loyalty to the status quo, grassroots organizing led the way forward.

It’s a basic principle that has always been at the heart of the labor movement. Progress, steadily gained, is fueled by the power of a mobilized community. Every victory in the fight against oppression has ultimately been achieved by that spirit of solidarity.

That’s certainly been true in the ongoing battle for justice on the job. From my first day in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania, I knew that the only way to secure a brighter future was to lock arms and stand together. And that meant leaving no one behind.

That’s why we at the UMWA were so proud to help secure some of the earliest protections for same-sex couples in our members’ contracts, ensuring that all of our comrades had equal access to key benefits. We couldn’t afford to wait until it was popular.

And so unions offered a new refuge for gay workers. A place where full equality wasn’t just a mission, but an obligation.

Over the succeeding decades, LGBTQ Americans have won a flurry of progress. Public opinion shifted in favor of equality. Prominent figures, from sports to entertainment to politics, came out of the closet. Institutional disdain for the community gave way to unbending advocacy of justice. Trans rights were lifted up, the armed forces’ closet door was knocked down, and the constitutional right to marriage was unequivocally affirmed.

Perhaps no movement for social change has achieved so much so quickly. But even in a sea of rainbow flags—and even with marriage equality secured—there still remains too much of the discrimination endured by early protesters.

Today, you are free to marry who you love. But in most states, you can still be fired because of who you are. Unless, of course, you have the protection of a union contract.

The truth is that many of the fights left to be won are based on economic rights. They’re rooted in workers’ relationships with employers. The labor movement knows a thing or two about that.

The AFL-CIO’s constituency group Pride at Work continues to lead the way in advocating for the dignity of LGBTQ workers. The rights codified in so many union contracts over the years—from couples’ benefits to nondiscrimination to trans health care—have made headway that simply couldn’t have been gained otherwise.

For many LGBTQ Americans, a union card is their only form of employment protection. But more importantly, it signifies membership in a large and growing family ready to fight when it matters most.

That’s what the labor movement is all about. And it’s how the progress of tomorrow will be won.

So, here’s my ask for this Pride Month: Join a union. Check out Pride at Work and tackle the workplace challenges facing LGBTQ Americans the way this movement always has: Organize, organize, organize.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on June 26, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold elected officials and employers accountable to working families.

The Supreme Court hits pause on gay and lesbian rights

Monday, December 11th, 2017

For the second time in a week, the Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it may no longer be a friendly place for victims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Court announced Monday that it will not hear Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, a surprising decision given that the question presented in Evans — whether existing law banning discrimination “because of … sex” encompasses discrimination based on sexual orientation — is a subject of disagreement among federal appeals courts.

According to the Court’s own rules, the justices are especially likely to hear cases where “a United States court of appeals has entered a decision in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter.” Maintaining the uniformity of federal law is one of the primary functions of the Supreme Court.

As a general rule, it is dangerous to overread the significance of the Court’s decision not to hear a particular case. Such denials of review are not decisions on the merits, and can sometimes reflect a quirky problem with an individual case — not that the justices are uninterested in resolving the issue presented by that case.

But the Court’s non-decision in Evans follows last week’s surprising oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where Justice Anthony Kennedy — the author of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision — appeared unwilling to let the law treat homophobia as an evil akin to racism, sexism, or other forms of invidious discrimination.

Taken together, the two events suggest that Kennedy, who believes that all people have a fundamental right to marry, is not particularly interested in abolishing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation writ large. Without Kennedy, moreover, the project of equality for the LGBTQ community is dead in the water at the Supreme Court.

A year-and-a-half ago, Kennedy’s marriage equality opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges seemed to suggest that gay rights litigators still had many significant victories ahead of themObergefell described sexual orientation as an “immutable nature.” And it highlighted the long history of harsh discrimination against people with same-sex attractions both by the government and private actors.

This language in the Obergefell opinion seemed significant because past Supreme Court decisions established that when a group has historically faced discrimination that bears “no relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” and especially when they face such discrimination because of an “immutable” trait that they cannot control, any law which discriminates against that group must be treated with a great deal of constitutional skepticism.

A major purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment is to eradicate institutionalized racism and government discrimination that is similar in character to racism, and Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion strongly signaled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation meets this test.

Perhaps emboldened by these signals in Obergefell, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held last April that the existing ban on sex discrimination by employers prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In an 8-3 decision joined by several Republican-appointed judges, the Seventh Circuit explained in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College that discrimination against a lesbian employee is itself a form of sex discrimination. Being a woman attracted to women “represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype.”

On the day Hively was handed down, there was good reason to believe that the Supreme Court would follow the Seventh Circuit’s lead. Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell suggested that he believes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is both morally and legally similar to sexism. And eliminating private discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees was the next logical step for LGBTQ rights litigators after their victory for marriage equality.

Now, however, that project is stalled. The Supreme Court’s decision not to take the Evans case leaves Hively in place, but it also leaves in place decisions in several other federal judicial circuits holding that it is perfectly legal to fire someone because they are gay. Kennedy’s questions in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, moreover, suggest that he may even be willing to roll back existing protections for such workers.

At last Tuesday’s oral argument, Kennedy was outraged by a Colorado state commissioner who said — accurately — that “freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history.” He also accused the state of not being “tolerant” or “respectful” of the religious beliefs of a baker who refused to serve a same-sex couple in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.

Kennedy, in other words, appeared to think that laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation must bend to the will of people who claim a religious justification for their prejudices — or, at least, that state officials who wish to enforce these laws must walk on eggshells to avoid offending people on the religious right.

Rather than extending civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, and bisexual workers throughout the country, Kennedy now appears more likely to roll back existing protections in states that already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The momentum towards equality is currently paused, but it may soon move in reverse.

This article was originally published by Ian Millhiser on December 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Can federal workers blatantly discriminate against LGBTQ people? Jeff Sessions isn’t sure.

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

During Wednesday’s Justice Department Oversight Hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the Department of Justice’s new “religious freedom” guidance. In particular, Durbin was concerned about how the guidance might enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination, asking Sessions to respond to several hypotheticals.

“Could a social security administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?” Durbin asked.

There was a long pause. “That’s something I never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that, if you don’t mind.” Sessions responded.

Durbin countered, “I’d like to have that,” then launched right into another hypothetical. “Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts?”

“Likewise, but I would say to you — are you citing Title VII for this? Or the guidance? I’m not sure that’s covered by it, but I’ll look.”

It is highly unbelievable that Sessions had never considered these examples prior to Wednesday. More than two years ago, when he was still in the Senate, Sessions was one of the original co-sponsors of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a bill that would grant those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage a license to discriminate. Many of the provisions in the new guidance mirror FADA’s language.

 In response to that bill’s introduction, the ACLU and LGBTQ advocacy groups pushed back, saying that it would be used to prop up discrimination. The ACLU, in particular, outlined FADA’s “parade of horribles” in a 2015 blog post, including the following two:
  • [It would] permit government employees to discriminate against married same-sex couples and their families – federal employees could refuse to process tax returns, visa applications, or Social Security checks for all married same-sex couples.
  • [It would] allow federal contractors or grantees, including those that provide important social services like homeless shelters or drug treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people or anyone who has an intimate relationship outside of a marriage.

Those are nearly identical to the hypotheticals Durbin asked Sessions to respond to on Wednesday. Still, years after they’d been highlighted by advocacy groups, Sessions claimed they had somehow never occurred to him before.

After Sessions’ dodged Durbin’s hypotheticals, the senator asked the attorney general to comment about the fact that “people are discriminating in the name of their own personal religious liberty.”

Sessions responded:

Yes, I would say that wherever possible, a person should be allowed to freely exercise their religion and not to carry out activities that further something they think is contrary to their faith. But at the same time, if you participate in commercial exchanges, you have limits on what you can do under those laws — public accommodation type laws. And so the balance needs to be properly struck — and I think we have. Those issues were discussed as we wrestled with this policy.

It’s unclear with whom Sessions discussed those issues. The Department of Justice apparently held “listening sessions”, but has refused to name which groups it consulted. The reason the public even knows these consultations took place at all is because the Alliance Defending Freedom — an anti-LGBTQ hate group that defends business owners who discriminate and challenges nondiscrimination protections in the name of “religious freedom” — bragged that it had participated in them.

Given Sessions said in an interview last week that he believes such discrimination should be allowed in the case of the anti-gay baker whose case is headed to the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to imagine how he might respond to Durbin’s hypotheticals, if pressed.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news. In 2014, The Advocate named Zack one of its “40 under 40” in LGBT media, describing him as “one of the most influential journalists online.” He has a passion for education, having received a Bachelor’s in Music Education at Ithaca College and a Master’s in Higher Education at Iowa State University, and he relishes opportunities to return to classroom settings to discuss social justice issues with students. He can be reached at zford@thinkprogress.org.

Texas has a new plan to discriminate against LGBT people

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Texas’ anti-transgender bill has seemingly stalled, but inspired by North Carolina, Republican state lawmakers have a new plan to expand discrimination against LGBT people.

Last month, Texas seemed on track to follow in the footsteps of North Carolina’s HB2 and pass its own bill, SB6, mandating anti-transgender discrimination across the entire state. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) launched a massive misinformation campaign to scare up support of the bathroom bill, and the Senate passed it, terrifying the trans kids and families who testified against it. The bill was blocked in the House by various House Republican leaders who indicated they believed it was unnecessary.

But now, those House Republicans have introduced a new bill that looks awfully familiar.

Unlike the various complicated aspects of SB6, HB 2899 does only one thing: ban cities from passing nondiscrimination protections. To that end, it also would nullify any municipal nondiscrimination ordinances already in place.

This approach strongly resembles the “compromise” bill North Carolina lawmakers recently passed to replace HB2, which banned cities and school districts from passing any ordinance “regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations” until December 1, 2020.

These both, in turn, follow the example set by Tennessee and Arkansas—which have “preemption” laws that prohibit cities from protecting any class from discrimination that isn’t already protected under state law, which amounts to a de facto ban on LGBT protections. North Carolina’s law sloppily allows protections that already exist to remain in place, but Texas takes the approach a step further. By banning and nullifying all nondiscrimination ordinances, HB 2899 would prohibit cities from doing anything to address discrimination on the local level.

HB 2899 would effectively be a statewide license to discriminate against LGBT people. By regulating schools, it would also have severe consequences for LGBT students, who could not be protected from bullying. Trans students could not be guaranteed the right to use the restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity.

Given the NCAA and NBA were convinced to abandon their boycotts of North Carolina over its replacement law, it seems likely that Texas lawmakers expect their new plan will similarly be safer from economic backlash. This is despite the fact that many cities and states are maintaining their bans on publicly-funded travel to North Carolina.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R), who blocked the Senate anti-trans bill, called HB 2899 “the right kind of balance” between “privacy”—i.e. discrimination against transgender people—and avoiding “a chilling effect on business.”

Cook’s committee will consider the new bill next Wednesday.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on April 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Zack Ford is the LGBT Editor at ThinkProgress.org. Gay, Atheist, Pianist, Unapologetic “Social Justice Warrior.” Contact him at zford@thinkprogress.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

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