Employment Law Attorneys

Biden Administration Unthreads Religious Liberty Needle of the Civil Rights Act14 min read

By Fran Slusarz

The day he took office, President Biden issued Executive Order 13988, on “Preventing and Combatting Discrimination on the basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation.” The effect of this order was to undo seven months of hackneyed religious liberty arguments of the previous administration to justify transphobic and homophobic policies that circumvent the obvious application of the Supreme Court’s holding in Bostock v. Clayton County. In honor of Pride Month and Bostock’s first anniversary as law of the land, I present some thoughts on the intersection between the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and anti-discrimination legislation, as well as current attempts to curtail transgender rights.

But first, a few ground rules: This is not a peer-reviewed law journal article. It is an attempt to translate some complex legal issues into something a non-lawyer can read and think about. I have most definitely overlooked nuances, and I welcome thoughtful criticism. Further, I intend no disrespect to any religion, religious thought, or people of faith. I do, however, disrespect the use of one’s religious beliefs to limit the rights of others and my pet peeve, the ascribing of religious faith to intangible statutorily-created legal fictions like corporations.

Bostock: Discrimination Because of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity IS Because of Sex

Bostock resolved a trio of employment discrimination cases, where the employees were fired when the employers found out the employees were homosexual or transgender. The Supreme Court acknowledged that discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is included in prohibition against discrimination “because of … sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court explained, “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” The employer who discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity necessarily considers the behavior or appearance of the employee in comparison to how the employer believes a person of the employee’s sex should behave or appear and, therefore, discriminates because of the employee’s sex. The decision was groundbreaking and led to predictable backlash in the name of religious freedom.

Free Exercise of Religion

From the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 until recently, the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” was understood to mean we will not have an official religion in this country and individuals are free to worship as they choose. In recent years, a more interventionist interpretation has taken root; one that encompasses the freedom to impose one’s religion on others. Based on this aggressive interpretation of religious freedom, we have business organizations that experience reverence for that which is sacred and divine, government clerks who think they can establish a religion for the county even if the government can’t, and wedding cake bakers whose Christian faith prevents them from creating confections for same sex spouses even if the same scruples allow them to bake cakes celebrating non-Christian weddings of a man and a woman.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 Prohibits Some Discrimination

Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his[/her/their] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Title VII of Civil Rights Act does not apply to “religious corporation[s], association[s], educational institution[s], or societ[ies] with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion.” This makes sense: Congress did not want a world in which I could sue a Jewish congregation for refusing to hire me, a non-Jew, as a religious education teacher. That would be silly and would infringe the congregants’ rights to worship as they choose.

The Former Guy’s Shot Across the Bow

On January 19, 2021, the day before Biden’s inauguration, the former acting head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, John Daukas, issued a spite memo declaring that Division should not extend the holding in Bostock to areas such as gender-based policies on bathrooms and sports teams. The memo states, “Unlike racial discrimination, the Supreme Court has never held that a religious employer’s decision not to hire homosexual or transgender persons ‘violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice’ or that the government has a ‘compelling’ interest in the eradication of such conduct.”

Albeit true, I’m calling Balderdash! at Daukas’s lofty statement. First, the Civil Rights Act exempts “religious corporation[s], association[s], educational institution[s], or societ[ies]” from its prohibitions against employment discrimination. Churches can discriminate in its employment practices because of sex with abandon. (See Female Catholic Priests. Or, more to the point, don’t see them.) Second, Daukas intentionally misstates what the Supreme Court held in Bostock. The Supreme Court did not invent two more protected categories to Title VII; it explained that discrimination because of sex includes discrimination against homosexuals and transgender people. It is natural and expected, therefore, that “the Supreme Court has never held that … [failure to] hire homosexual or transgender persons ‘violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice…’” because the Supreme Court decries discrimination because of sex.

Finally, Daukas’ use of the term “religious employer,” signals that he is preaching to the interventionist religious freedom choir. No one questions the right of a religious organization to discriminate. Daukas wants individual employers and their business corporations to be able to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Civil Rights Division rescinded Daukas’s insightless memo two days later, as inconsistent with Executive Order 13988.

Bostock and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states, “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” On March 26, 2021, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department issued a memorandum concerning the Application of Bostock v. Clayton County to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, concluding that the textual analysis of “because of” sex in Bostock applies to Title IX’s “on the basis of sex.” The Department of Justice’s conclusion that Title IX protects transgender students is backed by two post-Bostock appellate court decisions that reach the same conclusion. This is unlikely to cause widespread pushback from colleges and universities. The National Collegiate Athletics Association has supported transgender athletes for many years, publishing its handbook entitled, NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes in 2011.

In general, all colleges and universities that receive federal funding are covered by Title IX. Many high schools are covered as well. There is a religious exemption for private colleges and universities that are run or controlled by religious organizations. Fear-mongers can relax: Liberty University will not be forced to amend its Honor Code and admit openly homosexual or transgender students.

Bostock and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act

On May 10, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services issued its Notification of Interpretation and Enforcement of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The notification states that HHS will interpret and enforce Section 1557’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

HHS’s interpretation and enforcement are limited by challenges concerning religious freedom. In the Religious Sisters of Mercy v. Azar, decided on January 19, 2021, the Northern District of North Dakota held HHS’s interpretation of Section 1557, which could require Catholic plaintiffs to provide gender-affirming surgery and/or insurance coverage for gender-affirming surgery, violated the plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs. It is likely that Courts of Appeals reviewing the same issue would affirm the decision. This makes sense: Catholic doctrine on issues of sexuality, birth control, abortion, and the procreative purpose of humankind is well-known. If Congress cannot establish a state religion and cannot infringe individuals’ rights to worship as we choose, it cannot force religious organizations or individuals with sincerely-held religious beliefs, to perform or pay for medical procedures that violate religious doctrine.

Rant alert: I’m talking about religious organizations, not business corporations. Applying this rule to business corporations is crazy talk, Hobby Lobby notwithstanding. I cannot get behind the idea that a business corporation has sincerely-held religious beliefs. Corporations are legal fictions created by state law. The purpose of a business corporation is to create a legal “person” that can sue and be sued, to protect human owners from liability. As amusing as the Wall Street Catechism might be, business corporations do not ponder the meaning of life or their roles in it: the meanings of their lives are inscribed on certificates of incorporation and imbued in mission statements. Corporations are intentionally not the human owners. Regardless of what the human owners may sincerely believe, business corporations are no more capable of religious thought than a stapler. And at least the stapler is tangible. Rant over.

Backlash from the States

Bathroom Bills have been covered extensively and are based on the fantastic belief that allowing transwomen to TCOB in the women’s bathroom will invite hordes of pedophilic men to touch your daughters. It’s ‘nad-baiting, simple and plain.

Tennessee has added a new twist, by requiring businesses to post which biological sex is allowed in multi-person public bathrooms. It’s an exciting new way for trans-inclusive businesses to blackball themselves without ever having to answer if they are now, or ever have been, courteous to transgender patrons.

It’s almost impossible to keep current with the anti-transgender athletics laws passing state legislatures and signed gleefully into law by governors surrounded by assorted daughters and females (because, you know, as fathers of daughters, they know what it’s like). I was going to call out Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee for their laws banning trans girls from participating in girls’ sports, but then the fatheriest of fathers of daughters of them all, Florida’s Ron DeSantis, signed his very own ban on trans girls and women participating in girls’ and women’s sports on June 1. A very merry Pridemas to all!

One of the assorted daughters and females surrounding Governor DeSantis was Selina Soule, a plaintiff who sued to end Connecticut’s transgender inclusion policy. Ms. Soule talked about the pain of competing against talented athletes who are different from her. Her lawsuit, by the way, was dismissed as moot in late April since the two trans athletes who were ruining her life graduated from high school. The Heritage Foundation described presiding Judge Robert N. Chatigny as “activist” for his exercise of judicial restraint.

This is a hot-button issue, so let me put it out there right now – sports are supposed to be fun. Kids should just get to play. There is no evidence that a trans girl on hormone therapy has an unfair advantage over biological girls in sports. Indeed, the medical evidence says otherwise, as does indisputable fact: if the two trans athletes in the Connecticut case had an unfair competitive advantage, they would have come in first and second in every race. But they didn’t. They were beaten regularly by the named plaintiffs, each of whom is an extremely gifted athlete in addition to being a biological girl.

Nothing but the deepest respect for the law of unintended consequences has me wondering what the biological girls’ parents are thinking. (As minors, the girls cannot bring a lawsuit themselves, it must be brought by a parent or legal guardian on their behalf.) As much fun as “owning the libs” may be, the girls will be high school seniors soon enough. Have their parents considered how their daughters’ roles in transphobic political theater will look to Division I NCAA colleges? The NCAA “firmly and unequivocally” supports giving transgender athletes the opportunity to compete. Lawsuits are forever.

Back to the law, these states enacted their laws knowing perfectly well that they will be struck down, according to long precedent concerning the interpretation of “on the basis of sex” in Title IX cases. As long as the athletic programs are connected with federal funds, they have to comply with federal law. The Fourth and Eleventh Circuits have already applied the Bostock definition of “sex” to Title IX, and the Second Circuit will likely do so if the Soule case is ever decided on the merits. (The Plaintiffs appealed Judge Chatigny’s “activist”.)

Healthcare is the final, broad backlash category. The Arkansan legislature, in overriding Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto, decided that it is in a better position to make healthcare decisions for adolescents in the state than the adolescents’ own medical doctors. Specifically, it decided it must save the youth of Arkansas from gender affirming medical care because it is far better that transgender youth commit suicide than receive hormone therapy.

Think I’m joking? Being histrionic for dramatic effect? Look up the stats for suicidality in transgender adolescents. And then look up the stats for homelessness and sex work among transgender adolescents. After your stomach settles, you can clear your conscience with a donation to the youth shelter of your choice.

But back to healthcare, much ink has been spilled by the prospect of medical doctors of conscience being forced to perform gender-affirming surgery or being forced to prescribe hormone therapies. This is utter nonsense. Doctors choose the field of medicine in which they practice. Gender-affirming surgery, while lifesaving, is not emergency surgery. Hospital residents don’t get awakened at 3:00 am for emergency top surgery.

If you don’t want to perform gender-affirming surgery, the solution is simple: don’t become a plastic surgeon specializing in gender-affirming surgery. If you don’t want to prescribe hormone therapy to trans people, don’t become an endocrinologist specializing in gender-affirming hormone therapy. Trust me, trans people aren’t looking for resentful jerks to perform surgery on them or to provide any other medical care. The community knows who the good and empathetic healthcare practitioners are. If you have to ask, it ain’t you so don’t worry about it.

As a basic matter of Constitutional, employment, and human rights law, no one can be forced to perform gender-affirming surgery in this country. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery. If your employer insists you perform gender-affirming surgery and you do not want to for any reason whatsoever, you can work somewhere else. If you have a sincerely-held religious belief that prevents you from performing gender-affirming surgery, and your employer decides that starting tomorrow you must perform gender-affirming surgery or you will be fired, you still don’t have to do it. If you get fired or demoted or your pay is cut or you get switched to a bad shift, you have tidy discrimination and retaliation claims against your employer.

So, let’s talk about the true emergency situation. You arrive via ambulance in the emergency department of Religious Organization Hospital (which religious organization cleaves unto an unchangeable gender binary). You are unable to move one side of your body, experiencing altered states of consciousness, and a loss of balance. Your biological gender is relevant for the administration of anesthesia for your emergency cranial surgery, and it is important to disclose the medications you take.

There are probably more reasons to disclose your biological gender and hormone therapy – I’m not a medical professional – but the disclosures must be tied to your care. You should not be forced to answer endlessly invasive questions about your genitalia or to show your genitalia to all and sundry. You should not be misgendered or referred to by offensive terms. Simply, you should be treated with the same dignity-preserving respect as every person receiving medical care.

Providing emergency medical care to a transgender person does offend any legitimate religious doctrine I can think of, and I have to question the faith of anyone who claims their religion prevents them from preserving life.

When you get down to it, all LGBT people ask is that you follow the golden rule – Be Excellent to Them, as You Would have Others Be Excellent Unto You.

If you are being treated unfairly at work, in school, or by medical professionals because of your gender identity or sexual orientation, please contact our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. at info@capclaw.com.

Frances Codd Slusarz

Sexual Orientation and Transgender (LGBTQ)

Supreme Court Says Sex Discrimination Includes Homosexuality and Transgender Status

Equal Opportunity: Transgender Employees Are Protected Against Discrimination

DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY OF OUR