Company's religious liberty trumps Title VII ban on discrimination against LGBTQ employees, appeals court says
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act entitles a Texas company to an exemption from a federal mandate that bars discrimination against LGBTQ employees, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans ruled June 20 for Braidwood Management Inc., which employs workers for health-related companies owned by Steven Hotze.
The companies are run as “Christian” businesses that refuse to employ people who engage in behavior that Hotze thinks is “sexually immoral or gender nonconforming,” the appeals court said.
Hotze opposes same-sex marriage and said lending approval to such behavior would make him “complicit in sin.” Braidwood Management has a sex-specific dress code based on sex assigned at birth and bars workers from using restrooms that do not comport with biological sex.
Braidwood Management’s lawsuit had alleged that it can’t operate in accord with its Christian beliefs if forced to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court and by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” protects gay and transgender workers. And EEOC guidance would prohibit Braidwood’s policies regarding dress codes and bathroom usage.
According to the 5th Circuit, the Bostock court said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases,” but it provided little guidance for religious employers. The Supreme Court left resolution of religious issues for future cases, which the 5th Circuit interpreted as a “siren call.”
Answering the call, the 5th Circuit held that forcing Braidwood Management to comply with Title VII “post-Bostock would substantially burden its ability to operate per its religious beliefs about homosexual and transgender conduct.” As a result, it qualified for a Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemption.
The 5th Circuit acknowledged that someday, the Supreme Court might determine that preventing LGBTQ discrimination is such a compelling interest that it always overrides religious liberty. But for now, “it has never so far held that,” the appeals court said.
The 5th Circuit ruled against Braidwood Management, however, when it reversed a trial court decision to certify the case as a class action on behalf of religious employers. As a result, the appeals court said, the case will proceed to the merits only on Braidwood Management’s individual claims.
Braidwood Management was represented by America First Legal, a conservative organization, which called the 5th Circuit decision “groundbreaking” in a June 21 press release.
“We will continue to fight for the rights of Americans everywhere to be free from radical administrative transgender edicts,” said Gene Hamilton, vice president and general counsel at America First Legal, in the press release.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit group, had submitted an amicus brief supporting the EEOC’s position.
“The decision certainly narrowed some of the most troubling aspects of the district court’s decision. However, it still leaves a roadmap for other employers to discriminate,” Public Citizen lawyer Adam Pulver told the Associated Press.