Tag: discrimination

SCOTUS to rule on discrimination protections for LGBT workers

On 22 April 2019, the US Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari for the cases of Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. 2018) and Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County, No. 17-13801 (11th Cir. 2018) concerning the question of protection against discrimination in the workplace due to sexual orientation and, separately, for the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. 2018) concerning discrimination due to gender identity. All three cases will be heard under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964.

The application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 to discrimination based on sexual orientation has so far divided the federal Courts. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, discrimination is prohibited, inter alia, based on ‘sex’ and in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that Title VII applied to sexual orientation as well because it should be considered a ‘function of sex’ and therefore inextricably linked to the concept of ‘sex’. On the other hand, in Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County, No. 17-13801 (11th Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held, in a short per curiam opinion, that under Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 597 F.2d 936, 938 (5th Cir. 1979), “[d]ischarge for homosexuality [was] not prohibited by the Title VII.” This classic circuit split has prompted the Supreme Court to consolidate the two cases to answer the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Similarly, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. 2018), the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 also applied to discrimination based gender identity explaining that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” The Supreme Court will now determine whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 in fact applies to discrimination based on gender identity as part of discrimination on account of ‘sex’ (The New York Times).

The question of the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity comes down to the manner of interpretation of Title VII. Under an ordinary literal interpretation, discrimination based on ‘sex,’ must necessarily refer to discrimination of women (comparing to men) or of men (comparing to women). This is further confirmed by the fact that Title VII offers an exhaustive list of characteristics that attract its protection – originally it included race, color, religion, sex and national origin and then, over time, pregnancy, age and disability were added (by Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). Out of these, ‘pregnancy’ is especially interesting as it is necessarily closely linked to sex, yet Congress considered it necessary to add it separately thereby reinforcing the position that ‘sex’ does not cover other characteristics that it is simply linked to. The same conclusion is arrived at using the originalist approach and looking at the understanding of this provision at the time it was being passed. Clearly, in the 1960s, Congress could not contemplate protection for homosexuals in the workplace given that many States at the time (and long afterwords) had anti-sodomy laws on the books. In fact, the unconstitutionality of such laws was only established by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). On the other hand, under a purposive interpretation, Title VII could be taken to be intended to prevent discrimination of minorities in the workplace. With such a purpose, the close relationship between sex and sexual orientation and sexual identity is probably enough to apply a wide construction equating those characteristics.

Given that the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 comes down to the manner of interpretation, the case is likely to be resolved along the ideological lines, with conservative Justices taking a literal/originalist approach and liberal Justices taking a purposive approach. The ultimate outcome of the case will probably lie with Chief Justice Roberts who, although an originalist, is also wary of political implications of the case. Chief Justice Roberts has a record of siding with the conservative Justices in gay rights cases (e.g. United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013)Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015)), however this is the first time the Court will hear such a case after the departure of Justice Kennedy who, although a conservative, always sided with the liberals in cases concerning gay rights. This dynamics might affect the way Chief Justice Roberts will vote.

Christian Baker Sues Colorado for Anti-religious Hostility

In June 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. (2018), that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated a Christian baker’s freedom of religion under the First Amendment when it punished him for refusing to create a personalised wedding cake for a gay couple. The Court held that the Commission, when considering the case, manifested hostility towards the baker’s religious beliefs.

Shortly afterwards, the Masterpiece Cakeshop got involved in another incident when it refused to make a cake with a transgender message, which, despite the earlier ruling from the Supreme Court, led to yet another set of proceedings before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (The Denver Post). In August 2018, the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner sued the State of Colorado in a federal District Court claiming religious persecution. The lawsuit alleges violation of the First and the 14th Amendments. On 08 January 2019, Judge Wiley Y. Daniel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that the lawsuit against Colorado could proceed (Fox News).

The case is considered of high importance as it is likely that regardless of its outcome before the District Court, it will move up the judicial ladder towards the Supreme Court. Although the Court has already ruled on this issue, its conclusions were reached on very narrow grounds. The wider question of the priority of the freedom of religion under the First Amendment over non-discrimination legislation still remains open.

UK Judiciary Aligns with SCOTUS on ‘Gay Cake’ (UKSC)

On 10 October 2018, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 49 that the business’s refusal to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage was completely lawful and not contrary to the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (made under the Northern Ireland Act 1974) or the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (made under the Equality Act 2006), as claimed by the Claimant. Writing for the Court, Lady Hale argued that “obliging a person to manifest a belief which he does not hold has been held to be a limitation on his article 9(1) rights” under the European Convention on Human Rights (Buscarini v San Marino (1999) 30 EHRR 208) and that “the freedom not to be obliged to hold or to manifest beliefs that one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the Convention” (RT (Zimbabwe) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] UKSC 38; [2013] 1 AC 152) [at 50-2]. However, Lady Hale expressly distinguished between refusing to serve a customer based on his or her sexual orientation and forcing a business owner to prepare a product promoting a message he or she profoundly disagreed with [at 55]. Consequently, the Court was cautious not to create the impression that the ruling was a free pass to discriminate against homosexual consumers. Ultimately, the Court was of the opinion that forcing Ashers Baking Company to supply the requested cake would be a disproportionate limitation on the exercise of their rights to free speech and religion under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The decision of the UK Supreme Court comes not long after the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. (2018) that the decision of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission forcing a baker to supply a cake with an analogous message supporting gay marriage was unlawful. In June 2018, the Court held 7-2 (over the dissent of Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor) that in considering the case, the Commission had been guided by a prejudice towards religion and therefore its decision violated the First Amendment. The case was therefore decided on very narrow grounds and does not definitely resolve the question whether there is a right under the First Amendment to decline to provide a service on sincerely held religious grounds. Only Justice Thomas in his concurrent opinion argued that the Cakeshop owner was fully within his right to refuse to prepare a cake which would violate his religious beliefs. It seems that this question is bound to return to the US Supreme Court in the near future. In fact, shortly after the ruling, in August 2018, the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner sued the State of Colorado in a federal District Court claiming religious persecution involving another incident of a refusal of service, this time in relation to a cake with a transgender message (The Denver Post).

The issue of ‘gay cakes’ has become symbolic of a wider legal debate both in the United Kingdom and the United States on circumstances in which a business can refuse to serve a customer on the grounds of religious beliefs. The two recent judgments by the highest courts of both countries seem to tilt towards prioritising religious liberty over non-discrimination. It remains to be seen whether this will become a trend in both courts’ jurisprudence and to what degree their reasoning will overlap. Interestingly, in its ruling, the UK Supreme Court expressly relied on the approach taken by the US Supreme Court in its general First Amendment jurisprudence:

The respondent suggests that the jurisprudence in relation to “compelled speech” has been developed principally in the United States as a result of the First Amendment. There is indeed longstanding Supreme Court authority for the proposition that “the right to freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment against state action includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all”: see Wooley v Maynard 430 US 705, 714, per Burger CJ, citing Board of Education v Barnette (1943) 319 US 624, 633-634. But in the light of Laramore and RT (Zimbabwe) , and the Strasbourg case law on which they are based, it cannot seriously be suggested that the same principles do not apply in the context of articles 9 and 10 of the Convention.” [at 53]

On other hand, and in somewhat usual manner, the Ashers Baking Company judgment of the UK Supreme Court contains a postscript where Lady Hale addresses the Masterpiece Cakeshop judgment of the US Supreme Court:

“After the hearing in this case, while this judgment was being prepared, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down judgment in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission (unreported) 4 June 2018. The facts are not the same. A Christian baker refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his opposition to same sex marriage. There is nothing in the reported facts to suggest that the couple wanted a particular message or decoration on their cake. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, upheld by the Colorado courts, held that the baker had violated the Colorado law prohibiting businesses which offered sales or services to the public from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The baker complained that this violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of his religion… The majority recognised that businesses could not generally refuse to supply products and services for gay weddings; but they acknowledged that the baker saw creating a wedding cake as an expressive statement involving his First Amendment rights; and contrasted the treatment that he had received, which they perceived as hostile, from the favourable treatment given to three bakers who had refused to produce cakes with messages demeaning gay persons and gay marriages. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, in dissent, drew a clear distinction between an objection to the message on the cake and an objection to the customer who wanted the cake. The other bakery cases had been clear examples of an objection to the message rather than an objection to the customer. In their view the objection in this case was to the customer and therefore a violation. Justices Kagan and Breyer, who voted with the majority on the lack of neutrality point, also accepted that the Commission could have based its reasoning on that distinction – the other bakers would have refused to make cakes with the demeaning messages for anyone, whereas this baker had refused to make this cake because it was a gay couple who wanted it. Justices Thomas and Alito, on the other hand, considered that to make a cake for a gay wedding was expressive in itself and thus compelling it required strict scrutiny. Justice Gorsuch would also not have distinguished between a cake with words and a cake without. The important message from the Masterpiece Bakery case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics. One can debate which side of the line particular factual scenarios fall. But in our case there can be no doubt. The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics. So there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. If and to the extent that there was discrimination on grounds of political opinion, no justification has been shown for the compelled speech which would be entailed for imposing civil liability for refusing to fulfil the order.” [at 59-62]

In any event, the inherent conflict between religious rights and the ban on discrimination will inevitably prompt similar cases in both the United Kingdom and the United States within the foreseeable future.

Payment of Widowed Allowance to Spouses Only Violates Human Rights (UKSC)

On 30 August 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled In the matter of an application by Siobhan McLaughlin for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 48 that the current rules for the payment of Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights read in conjunction with Article 14. WPA is a contributory-based social benefit offered under s39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to widowed parents with dependent children whose spouse or civil partner has died. The Court ruled that the requirement of a formal marriage or civil partnership as a precondition for receiving WPA discriminated against couples who although had children together, never formalised their relationship.

The Court was however cautious to say that not every type of social benefit requiring a formal union is necessarily incompatible with the Convention. It was held that WPA could not be dependent on the prior existence of marriage or civil partnership because it was designed to benefit children who have lost one of their parents rather than to make any form of compensation to the surviving parent him or herself. Accordingly, to condition the payment of WPA on the existence of a formal union between parents is to effectively discriminate between the so called legitimate and illegitimate children – a policy which was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Marckx v Belgium (App. no.: 6833/74), back in 1979. It is on this basis that the Lady Hale, writing for the majority, attempted to distinguish the case of Shackell v United Kingdom (App. No.: 45851/99) where the European Court of Human Rights had held inadmissible complaints that the lack of a formal marriage should not deprive the surviving widow of an analogous benefit (paras. 25-28). The attempt was nevertheless not entirely convincing and Lord Mance in his Concurring Opinion (with which Lady Hale agreed) further elaborated on this point ultimately considering the reasoning in Shackell to be simply unsatisfactory (para. 49).

This approach of the majority however prompted Lorde Hodge to claim, in his Dissenting Opinion, that the majority was departing from a settled line of case law of the European Court of Human Rights which had recently been confirmed in the case of Burden v United Kingdom (App. no.: 13378/05). Moreover, Lord Hodge pointed out that although the WPA could be construed as designed to ultimately benefit children, it was nevertheless payable directly to the surviving spouse and depended heavily on his or her circumstances so that “if she remarries or enters into a civil partnership, so long as she cohabits with a partner of either gender, or if she dies, the WPA ceases to be payable” and “the sums payable to the Survivor are not related to the children’s needs or increased by reference to the number of children for whom she is responsible.” (paras. 76-78). At the end of the day, the UK Supreme Court under the presidency of Lady Hale again took an active approach to the protection guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.