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U.S. Federal Courts

U.S. Appellate Court rules trans people have legal protections under ADA

“This is a thorough, well-reasoned opinion recognizing that the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with gender dysphoria”

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Lewis F. Powell Jr. Courthouse, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Richmond VA (Photo Credit: GSA)

RICHMOND – Transgender people have additional protections from discrimination in the eyes of federal law for having a disability if they experience gender dysphoria, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a consequential decision that marks a first for a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, determined the Americans with Disability Act prohibits discrimination against people with gender dysphoria — despite explicit language in the law excluding “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorder” as a protected classes.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, an appointee of Bill Clinton, wrote in a 56-page decision gender dysphoria doesn’t fall under the those two categories in the law because “gender dysphoria is not a gender identity disorder.”

“[T]he ADA excludes from its protection anything falling within the plain meaning of ‘gender identity disorders,’ as that term was understood ‘at the time of its enactment,’” Motz writes. “But nothing in the ADA, then or now, compels the conclusion that gender dysphoria constitutes a ‘gender identity disorder’ excluded from ADA protection.”

As a result, the appeals court remanded the case for additional review to the lower trial court, which had come to the opposite conclusion and determined transgender aren’t covered under ADA.

The case was filed a Kesha Williams, a transgender woman with gender dysphoria who spent six months, incarcerated in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Although she was initially housed in a women’s prison, she was transferred to a man’s prison when officials learned she was transgender and was faced delays in getting transition-related care as well as harassment from fellow inmates and prison officials.

Among the group advocating in the case for additional protections under ADA were LGBTQ groups, including GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Fourth Circuit.

Jennifer Levi, GLAD’s transgender rights project director, said in a statement the decision is a “huge win” for transgender advocates because “there is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws.”

“It’s incredibly significant for a federal appeals court to affirm that the protections in our federal disability rights laws extend to transgender people,” Levi said. “It would turn disability law upside down to exclude someone from its protection because of having a stigmatized medical condition. This opinion goes a long way toward removing social and cultural barriers that keep people with treatable, but misunderstood, medical conditions from being able to thrive.”

The idea transgender people are covered under ADA has been controversial even among transgender people. On one hand, reading the law to include transgender people gives them added legal protections. On the other hand, transgender advocates have fighting hard for years to make the case being transgender isn’t a mental disorder. The American Psychological Association removed “gender dysphoria” as a type of mental disorder with the publication of DSM–5 in 2013.

“This is a thorough, well-reasoned opinion recognizing that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with gender dysphoria,” said NCLR’s Legal Director Shannon Minter. “This decision sets a powerful precedent that will be important for other courts considering this critical issue.”

Although the Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule transgender people have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, other courts have come to the same determination. In 2017, a federal trial judge in Pennsylvania ruled transgender people are able to sue in cases of discrimination under ADA despite the exclusions under the law.

“The effort to exclude transgender people from their rightful protections under the ADA was always baseless and discriminatory,” said Joshua Block, Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, “and we’re thankful the Fourth Circuit affirmed that reality today. Transgender people are denied a multitude of reasonable rights and accommodations, particularly while incarcerated, and today’s ruling is a step forward for their fairness and equality.”  

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U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court rules for LGBTQ students against Yeshiva Uni

The court’s order is a rare loss, for now, for conservative groups pushing so-called religious liberty arguments over LGBTQ rights

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The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote declined a request from New York City-based Yeshiva University to block a a New York County Supreme Court order that requires the university to recognize the “Pride Alliance” LGBTQ student club.

Last week Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a brief order, granted an emergency request made by Yeshiva University to temporarily block the order by New York County Supreme Court Judge who had ruled this past June that Yeshiva was bound by the New York City Human Rights Law, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In its order, the high court noted that the New York state courts had yet to issue a final order in the case, and that Yeshiva could return to the U.S. Supreme Court after the New York courts had acted.

Yeshiva University buildings and facilities on Wilf Campus, New York City (Photo Credit: Yeshiva University)

The university argued that it is a religious institution and therefore should be exempted from the law. Requiring it to endorse the group would be a “clear violation” of its rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion lawyers for the school said in court documents.

The court’s order is a rare loss, for now, for conservative groups pushing so-called religious liberty arguments over LGBTQ rights at the Supreme Court.

This is yet another in a series of cases the present court has heard and with its 6-3 conservative majority, has strongly backed religious rights in those cases.

Among its most recent rulings the high court has decided in favor of including a 6-3 ruling that sided with a former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach fired for refusing to halt his practice of praying at mid-field after games on school property.

The court in 2021 ruled in favor of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that Philadelphia had barred from participating in its foster care services because the group refused to place children with same-sex couples. Two years previously in 2018, the court ruled in favor of a conservative Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

This Fall term justices are set to hear arguments in cases from a web designer, also from Colorado, who wants the court to rule that, based on her evangelical Christian beliefs, she does not have to design wedding websites for same-sex couples. 

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U.S. Federal Courts

DOJ sues on behalf of gay tenant harassed by property manager

“We stand ready to use civil rights laws to combat sexual harassment in housing, including based on sexual orientation/gender identity”

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Milwaukee Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

MILWAUKEE, Wi – The owner and managers of a rental property in Milwaukee, Wisconsin were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday over their harassment of a gay and disabled tenant in violation of the Fair Housing Act. 

According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the defendants subjected the complainant-tenant to “discrimination on the basis of sex and disability, including severe, pervasive and unwelcome harassment on multiple occasions” and  “unwelcome and unwanted sexual comments that were egregious, offensive, and violent.” 

“At times relevant to this complaint,” the complainant-tenant, who is gay, received social security disability benefits (“SSDI”) for mental health conditions that left him unable to do basic work-related activities. These included bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), the latter stemming in part from a sexual assault and rape. 

The complainant-tenant made the onsite property manager aware of his sexual orientation and disabilities, including the PTSD, partly because they had become friendly and partly to ensure they were comfortable with his renting a unit on the property. 

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly covered in the Fair Housing Act but the federal government considers discrimination on these bases tantamount to sex or gender based discrimination. 

Beginning in December 2019 and continuing “throughout most of Complainant’s Tenancy,” to July 2020, the onsite property manager repeatedly texted the complainant-tenant messages such as, “Your a fag a abomination against Jesus fuck you,” and would often yell epithets like, “God hates faggots” from his residence across the street. 

These messages included unwelcome and sexually violent texts like, ““Grab your ankles daddy is coming to get some,” “What do you think about anal fisting,” and “I have a bowling [p]in with your name on it,” according to the complaint. 

The complainant-tenant was also targeted over his disability with messages like, “Get off your lazy ass and work quit scamming off the government” and “Little fag parade scam off the government you can work you‘re no better than a … fucking lazy POS and judge others.”

This escalated into violent confrontations in which the defendant allegedly struck the complainant-tenant in the groin, saying “hope you enjoyed the sexual assault.” 

For these and other violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Justice Department is asking the court to, among other actions, enjoin the defendants from future discrimination, award monetary damages, and other relief. 

“We stand ready to use our civil rights laws to combat all forms of sexual harassment in housing, including harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a press release issued by the agency. 

“The Justice Department will hold accountable landlords and housing providers who engage in unlawful discrimination and harassment of vulnerable tenants.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court: Yeshiva University can block LGBTQ student club

“Requiring it to endorse the group would be a “clear violation” of its rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment”

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Yeshiva University buildings and facilities on Wilf Campus, New York City (Photo Credit: Yeshiva University)

WASHINGTON – Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a brief order granted an emergency request made by Yeshiva University, a private modern Orthodox Jewish research university in New York City, to deny official recognition to an LGBTQ student group.

Today’s ruling by Justice Sotomayor puts on hold a decision by a New York County Supreme Court Judge this past June who ruled that Yeshiva was bound by the New York City Human Rights Law, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Last year in May, The Washington Post reported that the suit was filed April 26 in the New York County Supreme Court on behalf of a group of students collectively as ‘YU Pride Alliance, along with recent graduates including openly bisexual Molly Meisels, who told the Post she had come out at a rally on campus in September 2019. She added that she started a feminist club during her second semester on campus, and while it was initially ridiculed, she said, now it is simply accepted as a club.

She emphasized that having an officially recognized LGBTQ club at Yeshiva University is important in a tightknit, small campus, especially where the Jewish community emphasizes connection.

“What a queer club provides is community, especially where community is so vital,” Meisels said.

What sets the 3,000 students university apart is that it has registered as a nonsectarian corporation versus the more typical religious affiliated institution of higher education.

That status according to attorney Katie Rosenfeld, who is representing some of the students in the suit sets YU apart, especially she argues that because the school receives government and state funding, it shouldn’t qualify for religious exemptions. she works at a law firm that specializes in cases on civil rights.

The university argued that it is a religious institution and therefore should be exempted from the law. Requiring it to endorse the group would be a “clear violation” of its rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion, the university said in its response.

“Yeshiva shouldn’t have been forced to go all the way to the Supreme Court to receive such a commonsense ruling in favor of its First Amendment rights. We are grateful that Justice Sotomayor stepped in to protect Yeshiva’s religious liberty in this case,” Eric Baxter, a lawyer at the religious liberty legal advocacy group Becket, which is representing Yeshiva told NBC News.

Katherine Rosenfeld, a lawyer for Pride Alliance, said Friday in a statement that the group “remains committed to creating a space space for LGBTQ students” on campus and would await final action from the Supreme Court.

This is yet another in a series of cases the present court has heard and with its 6-3 conservative majority, has strongly backed religious rights in those cases.

Among its most recent rulings the high court has decided in favor of including a 6-3 ruling that sided with a former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach fired for refusing to halt his practice of praying at mid-field after games on school property.

The court in 2021 ruled in favor of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that Philadelphia had barred from participating in its foster care services because the group refused to place children with same-sex couples. Two years previously in 2018, the court ruled in favor of a conservative Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

This Fall term justices are set to hear arguments in cases from a web designer, also from Colorado, who wants the court to rule that, based on her evangelical Christian beliefs, she does not have to design wedding websites for same-sex couples. 

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