LGBT Rights: Understanding the Department of Justice In-fights with EEOC

Over the last year or so, we’ve talked quite a bit about the strides made in LGBT employment rights taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). We’ve seen enormous steps towards extending protection of the law to those discriminated against based on sexual orientation and gender identity, if not making them a protected class in and of themselves.

Title VII forbids employers from discriminating against employees due to being a member of a protected class such as race, gender, national origin, color or religion.  It also prevents employers from retaliating, through termination or otherwise, against employees who report such discrimination. For years now, the EEOC has embraced the logic that sexual orientation and gender identity fall under the protections of Title VII–including them in the gender class.

Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and Jeff Sessions are determined to spend resources attacking these rights. Just a few days ago, the DoJ filed a “friend of the court brief” (a type of brief where an interested non-party to a lawsuit makes a filing to try and convince a court to rule a specific way) arguing that LGBT persons shouldn’t be. This a step down a path undoing essentially 8 years of work. The timing of the filing, the same day as the transgender ban we just spoke about, just serves to highlight the Trump administration’s stance on LGBT rights. Let’s take a look at the case, the stance of the EEOC, and the DoJ’s arguments against extending rights to the LGBT community.

The Case in Question

The case itself deals with a skydiving instructor by the name of Donald Zarda. Back in 2010, he was working for Altitude Express doing tandem dives with clients. This obviously involves being essentially strapped together. In order to assuage the worries of a woman he was diving with regarding this issue, he mentioned to her that he was gay. Her husband complained about this to the company, leading to their firing Mr. Zarda. After this, Mr. Zarda sued Altitude Express for violations of Title VII.

Mr. Zarda’s claims obviously hinge on sexual orientation being protected from discrimination under Title VII. The DoJ’s court filings argue that this is not the case and cannot be the case without an act of Congress. This specifically targets the current stance of the EEOC, taken during the Obama Administration years.

 LGBTThe EEOC’s Current Position

In July 2015, the EEOC declared as an agency that sexual orientation was a protected class as a form of sex-based discrimination.  Since then, they have been investigating claims of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Recently, the EEOC has brought two separate federal lawsuits alleging discrimination against homosexual employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. They have had an unofficial stance favoring treatment of sexual orientation as protected under Title VII since as early as 2013. In cases as early as 2012, the EEOC had held the discrimination based on gender identity is discrimination based on sex and thus in violation of Title VII.

The arguments the EEOC makes to include sexual orientation and gender identity within the confines of sex and gender hinge on elements of Title VII which forbid discrimination based on non-compliance with norms or stereotypes. Essentially, it boils down to discrimination against LGBT persons being necessarily founded in discrimination based on their non-conformance with gender or sex norms in society–identifying with your birth gender and being heterosexual.

The DoJ is attacking this argument, as well as the power of the EEOC to make such a determination in the first place.

The Department of Justice’s Brief

The DoJ’s brief is substantial. They’ve clearly put quite a bit of time and resources into arguing against protecting the LGBT community. However, their arguments can essentially be boiled down to three things: 1) Congress has shown that they don’t want to protect LGBT persons by never amending Title VII to include them as a protected class; 2) discrimination can’t exist under Title VII unless women and men are treated differently; and 3) discrimination against LGBT is not necessarily related to gender.

Their first argument comes up several times in the brief. They assert that Congress’s failure to add sexual orientation when amending Title VII in 1978 and 1991, despite court rulings existing which refused protection on this basis, is proof Congress didn’t intend to protect LGBT persons. They say that Congress knew that LGBT people weren’t protected under the act both times they made their amendments. The DoJ says that this implies that Congress intentionally chose not to include LGBT people in Title VII’s protections.

The DoJ argues that this means that the EEOC doesn’t have the power to treat LGBT people as protected.  This probably is not the case, barring an actual act of Congress it is unlikely that the EEOC has acted beyond the purview of its role as an agency which is specifically to interpret and apply Title VII. However, the DoJ’s argument is the type that carries weight with the courts. In interpreting law, statutory interpretation often draws on the intent of Congress in making a law.  The failure to include LGBT persons is far from a deathblow to the EEOC’s interpretation but it certainly requires them to have stronger arguments backing their current treatment of the law.

Next, the DoJ argues that sex and gender discrimination only exists where men and women are treated differently by an employer. They cite a few (fairly cherrypicked) cases in support of this assertion. However, even the DoJ acknowledges that gender stereotyping creates an established cause of action for Title VII discrimination.  This leaves several holes in the DoJ’s arguments.

Gender stereotyping specifically creates a cause of action where an employee is discriminated against based on their divergence from established gender stereotypes. This has never relied upon treatment different from the opposite gender. If this wasn’t the case, why would gender stereotyping even exist as a cause of action under the law? Treating women differently from men already exists separate to gender stereotyping. If it only applies to treating women who act masculine worse than men who conform to gender stereotypes (or vice versa) then gender stereotyping as a rule becomes irrelevant. What’s more, if gender is considered as separate from biological sex (as is common practice in scientific communities these days), then transgender persons the EEOC argument still holds. A person male identifying female could receive disparate treatment from a male identifying male. In this case, although both have a birth gender of male, the case would involve a person identifying as one gender being treated differently from one identifying the opposite gender.

The DoJ tries to fight this by highlighting that a “plaintiff must show that the employer actually relied on her [or his] gender in making its decision.” This doesn’t have to mean one gender or another, just that an employer relied on the gender of the person discriminated against in stereotyping them.

Finally, the DoJ attacks the EEOC’s argument that discriminating against sexual orientation or gender identity is necessarily linked to the protected classes of sex or gender. They say, as if it encourages removing protections that a homophobic employer would discriminate against a gay or transgender person regardless of their gender. However, this once again ignores the basis of the EEOC’s argument in gender stereotyping. Even if an employer “equally discriminates” against both genders of LGBT persons, they are still necessarily discriminating based on a gender stereotype that people should have sex with the opposite sex and identify with their birth gender

The DoJ also argues that you can discriminate against gay people who completely conform to gender stereotypes other than their sexual orientation. This is held up to counter the EEOC’s argument that sexual orientation discrimination is always gender discrimination. It’s unclear however, as to how this is an argument against the practice altogether. Rather, at most, it is an argument that where there is no divergence from gender stereotypes there is no discrimination. How that would exist when a gay person is necessarily divergent from the gender stereotype of having relationships with the opposite sex is unclear.

Trump Administration is Backpedaling

The DoJ’s arguments for removing protections for LGBT have some serious issues, both from a legal analysis standpoint and an ethical one. However, they are not ridiculous on their face and are certainly capable of persuading a judge to rule in their favor.

The effort and money they’ve put in to allow discrimination against LGBT persons is, above all, an example of the Trump administration’s lack of commitment to protect the LGBT community. Despite proclaiming himself the preferred candidate for LGBT rights during his campaign, President Trump’s actions since taking office have shown him to anything but. This move is coming on the eve of revoking protections for transgender people in the military and in the wake of decisions backing off LGBT rights enforcement.

At this point, the issue is going to be more and more in the hands of state law-a patchwork of protection and utter lack of protection depending on where you live. However, more than anything, the DoJ’s actions reveal how important it is to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes of their own. This would require an act of Congress, and is thus will not happen soon. However, making these two a protected class would remove all of the DoJ’s arguments against protection. What’s more, they fit the established mold of what we treat as protected classes.

Courts have historically looked at three elements when forming a new protected class: (1) a long history of discrimination, (2) economic disadvantages, and (3) immutable characteristics. While some may argue immutability, despite substantial scientific evidence to contrary, both sexual orientation and gender identity easily check all these boxes. Until we see these two treated as a full protected class, the entire LGBT community will find it’s rights at the whim of each passing administration and that simply cannot stand.

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