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The President's Executive Order and Hobby Lobby: The Legal Connection

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BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

President Obama has made good on another pro-equality policy promise. Today, he amended a standing executive order to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Instead of creating a new nondiscrimination rule with an unnecessary and broad religious exemption, the President simply added the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of impermissible bases for discrimination. (Technically, more than these four words were added, but you get the idea.). The amendments also explicitly ban discrimination against federal employees on the basis of “gender identity.”

LGBT advocates have been clamoring for this kind of action for some time. Several years ago, many activists pushed Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a broad nondiscrimination law that would have covered more than just federal contractors. The law passed the Senate with every Democrat and only a handful of Republican votes, but had no future in the Republican-controlled House. Even worse, the draft bill included a broad religious exemption that has recently inspired several LGBT organizations, including the ACLU, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center, to withdraw their support for the bill. Now, our progressive allies are loathe to touch it.

Knowing that Republican House Speaker John Boehner was never going to bring a nondiscrimination bill to the floor, many advocates demanded that the President sign an executive order instead. And from now on, if a company wants to receive a federal contract, it must sign a pledge that it does not discrimination against gays.

HobbylobbyThat is great news, but the legal landscape after the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby makes this story more complicated. If a private, for-profit company now has permission to discriminate against women because its owners’ religion tells it to, one wonders if a similar company who wants a federal contract could use the same religious exemption to opt out of equal treatment of gays. AFTER THE JUMP, I discuss the executive order and the questions raised by Hobby Lobby.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Hobby Lobby and the Democrats Who Want to Fix It

SupremesBY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court's conservative majority allowed a large swath of for-profit companies to deny contraception to their female employees. Hobby Lobby, a national chain of arts and crafts stores, is a privately held, for-profit company that is run by a religious family. It's not a church. Nor is it a religious-based organization. It is simply a company that happens to be owned by religious people, but employs about 21,000 of varying beliefs. The owners objected to the part of Obamacare that required employers to provide health insurance that includes access to certain forms of contraception. They challenged that requirement and won, leaving the Supreme Court with a decision that declared that Hobby Lobby was a "person" entitled to the religious rights of persons.

We discussed the details of that decision here, in Part 1 of this three-part series on Hobby Lobby. In Part 2, I discussed how the Supreme Court actually made Hobby Lobby worse! For now, let's put aside our understandable anger at a decision that discriminates against women, denies necessary health care to those who need it, abuses precedent, and bloats religious freedoms to dangerous levels.

Hobby Lobby was a confusing decision and it is worth discussing it again not only so we can all understand it, but so we can fully appreciate its potential effects on the LGBT community. The ruling discussed religious freedom, which is enshrined in the First Amendment, but it was really based on a statute passed by Congress called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (as if religious freedom needed to be restored). It talked about corporations deserving the freedoms of persons, but it never fully explained if corporate personhood applies to everything or just certain freedoms and rights. Then, after going out of its way to explicitly narrow and cabin the decision to very specific situations, the Court majority did an about-face the next day, possibly expanded the scope of the decision, and admitted to the American people that, sometimes, the majority's words are just words, nothing more.

The decision did a lot of damage. So much damage, in fact, that Democrats in Congress are introducing legislation to overturn the decision. Speaker Boehner's conservative majority in the House is never going to bring the bill to the floor; the act of introducing the bill of pure (and great) politics. But to most of us, the entire scenario begs the question: How can Congress introduce a bill aimed at overturning a Supreme Court decision?

AFTER THE JUMP, I delve into the legal background of the Hobby Lobby decision so we can see how the case was decided and how legislation could fix it. 

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The Supreme Court Made Hobby Lobby Worse, for Women and for the LGBT Community

Hobbylobby

BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

The end of a Supreme Court term usually brings a flurry of action on big cases. Last year, we got Justice Kennedy's decision in United States v. Windsor that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and ushered in an unbroken marriage equality winning streak in the courts. This Supreme Court docket did not include any similar LGBT law cases. Nor did it end as heroically. This year, the Court's conservative majority allowed for profit companies to discriminate against women in the provision of health care in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

But sometimes, it's the less heralded maneuvers that make all the difference: a silent nemesis that creeps up behind you can do a lot more damage than a screaming Visigoth charging head on.

SupremesThat's what happened at the end of the Court's term last month. Justice Alito's Hobby Lobby majority opinion explicitly limited the decision to closely-held (family-run) corporations and explicitly limited it to the particular forms of contraception that were at issue in the case. The justices in the majority went out of their way to say that the decision leaves antidiscrimination laws intact, that it does not apply to publicly-traded corporations, that the decision should be confined to its facts. What's more, the Court also stated that one of the main reasons the government could not compel for-profit companies to provide objectionable health care was because there already was a viable work around aimed at religious nonprofits. Those organizations fill out a form attesting to their religious objection and the contraception would be provided directly from the health care company and not through the employer.

Not 24 hours later, the Court proved to us that all those words meant nothing. After issuing a decision, the Court also ordered lower courts to rehear related cases that could be changed by the decision. If Justice Alito and the majority could be taken at their word, the only cases that would need rehearing were those cases within the explicit narrow confines of Hobby Lobby. But the order went further. To the great consternation of Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan (notably, the three female justices on the Court), the majority ordered lower courts to rehear all pending cases involved religious exemptions to the contraception requirement, not just cases involving companies like Hobby Lobby and not just cases involving the particular forms of contraception involved in the case. And, as if that were not enough, the Court enjoined the very workaround meant for nonprofits that it appeared to endorse in Hobby Lobby as a viable alternative.

Left-leaning bloggers and writers -- not to mention the three female justices on the Court -- were apoplectic. The Court seems to have gone back on its word. Perhaps worse, the Court has broadened an already dangerous decision.

I summarize what the Court did, why Justice Sotomayor seemed so irate in her dissent, and why this matters for the LGBT community, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Federal Judge Strikes Down Kentucky's Marriage Discrimination Law

BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

Kentucky-flagIn the 23rd consecutive pro-equality ruling from a federal court since the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor, Judge John G. Heyburn, a President George H.W. Bush appointee at the recommendation of now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, struck down Kentucky's ban on gay couples marrying. Those of us following the situation in Kentucky knew this was coming: Judge Heyburn had previously ruled that Kentucky had to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed out of state. It was a small step to invalidate Kentucky's own ban.

The opinion in the case, aptly captioned Love v. Beshear, reviews much of the ground covered by the 22 rulings that preceded it. It also departs from the past by, in particular, both relying on Windsor and narrowing it. It explicitly declines to take the route preferred by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Kitchen v. Herbet, which was to find Utah's ban unconstitutional as a violation of a fundamental due process right, and instead relies on the Equal Protection Clause. Judge Heyburn concluded that Windsor was an equal protection ruling, not a due process one. The confusion stems from the lack of clarity in Justice Kennedy's opinion. The result is the same: the ban is unconstitutional.

AFTER THE JUMP, I review in detail Judge Heyburn's interpretation of Windsor and show how it is different than many of the cases that have come before it in the post-Windsor world.

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What Was So Remarkable About the Tenth Circuit's Decision Striking Down Utah's Gay Marriage Ban

BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

6a00d8341c730253ef01a511d4c82a970c-800wiTo regular Towleroad readers, Judge Lucero's opinion holding Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional reads like so many other equality rulings in the post-Windsor world. But the June 25th decision is still remarkable and unprecedented. Kitchen v. Herbert did not just say banning gays from marrying is unconstitutional. Rather, it said the law is unconstitutional specifically because of Windsor

The opinion has all the trappings of many of the district court decisions that preceded it. First, the Court addressed the standing of the parties (the Governor and Attorney General of Utah) to appeal. I won't spend any time on that section except to say, they do have standing. Second, the court dispatched the Baker v. Nelson canard. As courts have argued countless times in the last 4 years, a 1971 order by the Supreme Court saying that a gay marriage lawsuit does not raise any federal question is outdated and no longer good law in the post-Romer, post-Lawrence, and post-Windsor universe. 

But the way the Baker argument got resolved was new. Utah, which was represented in Court by my old boss at Winston & Strawn LLP, Gene Schaerr, argued that the very principles of federalism and the separation between the federal government's role and the role of state governments that were reaffirmed in Windsor mandate that the Tenth Circuit hold to the Baker dismissal. In other words, Utah was acknowledging that the world has changed since 1971, a concession that the Prop 8 proponents and those supporting the Virginia gay marriage ban have refused to make. However, despite those cataclysmic changes, Utah argued that Windsor reminds us of the danger of the federal government intruding into the exclusive realms of the state. Therefore, since marriage is traditionally a state issue, the federal judiciary should stay out of a state's decision to discriminate against gays in that exclusive state matter.

The problem with this unique argument is that it is just plain wrong, derived, as it is, from a selective reading of Windsor. Justice Kennedy did indeed pay homage to the federalism concerns raised by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). For the first time ever, Congress had created a federal definition of marriage and no longer just accepted whatever the states had deemed as legitimate marriages. But, as I argued previously, the federalism discussion was merely a tool to show Congressional overreach and a reason for the federal courts to take more than a mere cursory once-over of the law. DOMA's federalism problem inspired Kennedy to be more critical of Congress's antigay motives and actions, which he found in violation of the federal constitution. It did not cause him to deny the federal role entirely.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Supreme Court Limits Obamacare's Contraception Coverage

BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN

6a00d8341c730253ef01a73dd60f4d970d-300wiIn the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby:

In the Court’s view, [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith—in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ. Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent. 

"Havoc" is one mild, understated way to put it. I would add "dangerous," "unprecedented," and "violent."

BrYbC7YCMAAOCqRWhen last we heard about Obamacare, the number of enrollees had exceeded certain Administration expectations. But if you recall, these enrollments were only allowed to happen after the Supreme Court concluded that the central piece of the law -- the individual mandate that requires people to have insurance -- is constitutional.

Today, Obamacare is back in legal news. In a 5-4 decision in Hobby Lobby, the Court held that family-owned corporations can opt out of generally applicable laws for religious reasons. You can read the full decision here. I previewed the legal issues back in March because this case has dangerous implications for the future of LGBT equality.

This case is a so-called religious freedom challenge to a federal law. The Affordable Care Act requires that health care plans provide their customers with certain contraceptives and contraceptive services free of charge. Hobby Lobby, a closely-held (that is a fancy legal term for "family-run") chain of retail arts and crafts stores run by a deeply religious family, took issue with providing its employees with contraceptives that it believed violated the owners' religious beliefs. The company challenged the requirement, arguing that corporations can have religious rights, should be able to sue to protect those rights, and that Obamacare violated its freedom of religion.

Many of us are concerned about our health care and the health care of others. This decision impacts directly all of us who work for companies that provide health insurance: granted, today's decision only applied to private, closely-held companies; but there is little in the opinion to prevent expansion down the road.

However, more to the point, Hobby Lobby sets a dangerous precedent in the gay rights universe. Gay equality laws -- from marriage equality laws in New York to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that passed the U.S. Senate -- have religious exemptions. States that gained marriage equality by judicial decision still have vocal opponents whose arguments (perhaps pretextual) are based on religious freedom. They say they should not be forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or rent out their catering halls for gays, or provide any services to gay couples because they oppose gay marriage. If Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts company that has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, can exempt itself from a federal law aimed at providing equal access to all, then perhaps a baker or a florist or a limousine driver can do the same to us.

Religious exemptions and religious freedom arguments can grow to a point where they endanger equality. Our community cannot simply be satisfied with Windsor, the post-Windsor marriage equality winning streak, and the prospect of an impending second shot at the Supreme CourtHobby Lobby could undo much of it.

AFTER THE JUMP, I discuss the Hobby Lobby decision, its dangers, and its limitations.

Continue reading "Supreme Court Limits Obamacare's Contraception Coverage" »


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