Sunday, October 6, 2019
The United States Supreme Courts 2019 Term begins with oral arguments in three cases that will impact LGBTQ equality. To be clear, the Court is not considering constitutional law issues. Instead all three cases involve statutory interpretation of the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et. seq.
The two consolidated cases both involve sexual orientation discrimination. In Altitude Express v. Zarda, the Second Circuit en banc held that sexual orientation discrimination constituted a form of discrimination "because of sex" under Title VII, overruling previous Second Circuit decisions, and provoking the dissent of four judges. Reaching the opposite conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit in Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, clung to its previous precedent, first in an unpublished opinion affirming the dismissal of the complaint, and then in a denial of rehearing en banc requested by a member of the court, with two judges issuing a dissenting opinion.
In deciding whether or not sexual orientation discrimination is included in Title VII's "because of sex" language, the primary precedent for the Court is its unanimous opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998), authored by the late Justice Scalia. The claim involved same-sex sexual harassment and the Court held:
We see no justification in the statutory language or our precedents for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII. As some courts have observed, male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits “discriminat[ion] . . . because of . . . sex” in the “terms” or “conditions” of employment. Our holding that this includes sexual harassment must extend to sexual harassment of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.
The third case LGBTQ Title VII case to be considered by the Court in the Term's opening days is R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC. The Sixth Circuit, in its unanimous panel opinion reversing the district judge, found that discrimination "against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII" under the "because of sex" discrimination prohibition. The court found that the "Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex" and that the religious claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RFRA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1, raised by the funeral home's owner failed because "Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination."
While the Court has not previously decided a case of transgender discrimination under Title VII, the Court's opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) held that sex-stereotyping is included within the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" under Title VII. Hopkins is a fractured opinion, and none of the Justices who decided the case remain on the Court.
These statutory interpretation cases will provide an indication of the Court's views on LGBTQ equality, a subject last at the Court in the closely-divided same-sex case Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), decided under the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, these three Title VII cases may illuminate how the Court is considering precedent.
Finally, no matter how the Court decides these Title VII issues, Congress retains ultimately authority. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed "The Equality Act" which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include prohibitions of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Senate has yet to take up this legislation.