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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Supreme Court poised to roll back LGBTQ rights


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Fencing surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 10, 2021 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LGBTQ advocates were rightly relieved when the Supreme Court handed down Bostock v. Clayton County this past June, a case that extended the prohibition against discrimination in employment to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And with the most LGBTQ-friendly President-elect in U.S. history poised to take office in a matter of days, our community has even more reason to be hopeful.

Despite these positive developments, however, the Supreme Court poses a grave danger to the LGBTQ community. As the court ushers in a new era of conservative dominance—with anti-LGBTQ justices holding a 6-3 supermajority—the fragile judicial coalition on which the movement for equality has relied is at significant risk of being cast aside. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the court is deeply concerning. Justice Barrett has defended Justice Roberts’ dissent in Obergefell, indicating that the issue of marriage equality should belong to state legislatures. She has repeatedly used transphobic and homophobic language, and even argued that Title IX does not protect transgender people. Her extremist positions will embolden the anti-LGBTQ conservative justices on the court – Justices Kavanaugh and Alito recently held an inappropriate private meeting with an anti-gay activist who had filed briefs in pending cases — and other Trump-appointed judges, as well as state legislatures to take anti-LGBTQ stances. With equality hanging in the balance, the LGBTQ community cannot afford a Supreme Court that stands to crush any progress made.

Marriage equality: In October, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to a case involving Kentucky woman Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, the denial of certiorari came with warning signs: Justices Alito and Thomas wrote a section that cast doubt on the constitutionality of Obergefell, the landmark Supreme Court case in which Justice Kennedy’s opinion that held that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Constitution. In the certiorari denial, Justice Thomas wrote: “By choosing to privilege a novel constitutional right over the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the First Amendment, and by doing so undemocratically, the Court has created a problem that only it can fix. Until then, Obergefell will continue to have ‘ruinous consequences for religious liberty.’” While broad majorities of the American people support marriage equality and opponents of it might not have the votes on the Supreme Court to overturn the precedent, it is nonetheless a troubling sign that two Justices would sign onto discrimination against our fellow citizens.

Discrimination: The currently pending case before the Supreme Court about discrimination is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case emerged from circumstances in 2018: The city of Philadelphia had hired a number of agencies for foster care service. When the city learned that two agencies denied same-sex couples as foster parents, Philadelphia threatened to stop using the agencies unless they agreed to nondiscrimination requirements. While one of the agencies complied, the other, the Catholic Social Services (“CSS”), sued the city in federal district court. The federal district court found in Philadelphia’s favor, which the Third Circuit then unanimously affirmed. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The CSS claims that because the city looks to several factors, including religious and racial factors, in spite of anti-discrimination law, it cannot at the same time prohibit the agency from considering the sexual orientation of foster parents under the guise of “religious belief.” If Philadelphia makes exceptions to its anti-discrimination laws in foster placement, it must also allow religious agencies an exception as well. If Philadelphia does not do so, it violates the First Amendment. The city claims that it can choose not to provide government contracts to organizations that do not adhere to its nondiscriminatory requirements. For the court to decide otherwise, it would mandate that the city discriminate.

The stakes are high, in part because a ruling against equality in Fulton could provide cover for undermining Bostock, which extended Title VII protections to LGBTQ employees. An expansion of the religious liberty to discriminate could eat away at Bostock. Even a 5-4 court with Justice Kennedy ruled against LGBTQ rights in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Now, with a 6-3 conservative supermajority, Fulton could strike a big blow against equality.

Health care and family: If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in California v. Texas, health care protections for the LGBTQ community would be eliminated. Section 1557 of the ACA is the law’s non-discrimination provision, which bans discrimination in health care on the basis of sex. The Obama administration’s rule interpreted Section 1557’s ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition to Section 1557, the ACA as a whole has been enormously important for the LGBTQ community. The uninsured rate for lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans fell dramatically due to the ACA and LGBTQ adults have become more likely to report having regular access to health care. For transgender Americans, who are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed and to face enormous challenges and have negative experiences accessing health care, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and provision of individual health insurance through the marketplaces are critical. The 6-3 conservative supermajority on the court makes the end of the ACA significantly more likely, with disastrous consequences that will disproportionately affect the LGBTQ community. 

Lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s interpretation of Section 1557, particularly in regard to its ban on discrimination on the basis of gender identity, have been percolating in the federal courts for years. The Trump administration has attempted to reverse those protections, but it is widely expected that the Biden administration will revert to the Obama-era rule. Even if the ACA survives, this line of litigation could undermine critical protections for transgender individuals in the health care system. While the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County last term interpreting similar language in Title VII (discrimination on the basis of sex) to cover gender identity should be definitive, the 6-3 conservative supermajority could decide to distinguish these cases and allow for discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in health care. Since so many of the nation’s hospitals are affiliated with religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, the court could seize on Justice Gorsuch’s language in Bostock suggesting that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could trump Title VII to require broad religious exemptions from non-discrimination in health care. 

Transgender rights: In addition to the massive blow that a gutted ACA could have for transgender rights, other cases about transgender rights percolating in the lower courts may someday make their way to the Supreme Court. In Saba v. Cuomo, for example, a transgender, nonbinary resident sued the state of New York for refusing to allow Mx. Saba to obtain a driver’s license that accords with Mx. Saba’s gender identity. In August, a lower court preliminarily enjoined Idaho’s law that barred transgender women from participating on women’s sports teams. That decision is currently being appealed.

Just this past year, the Fourth Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit considered whether school bathroom policies violated transgender students’ rights. Though both circuits ruled in favor of the students, the Grimm case briefly reached the Supreme Court in 2017 before being sent back to the lower court. In 2019, the Supreme Court rejected certiorari in a case involving transgender bathrooms, leaving a lower court’s trans-affirming decision in place. But it only takes four votes for the Court to take a case, and with a 6-3 supermajority now firmly in place, there is no telling the havoc it could wreak on transgender rights.

As we celebrate the end of the Trump era, and as we prepare to work with the incoming Biden administration to restore rights that have been destroyed over the past four years while advancing the case for equality, the LGBTQ community must pay attention to the danger posed by anti-LGBTQ justices, and we must advocate forcefully for judicial reforms such as court expansion and term limits that rebalance the stolen, illegitimate court.

Aaron Belkin is the director of the Palm Center and of Take Back the Court, and a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights