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Saks Fifth Avenue Is No Longer Claiming It Has A Right To Discriminate Against Transgender Workers


After weeks of pressure from LGBT groups, Saks Fifth Avenue has withdrawn a court filing in which the department store chain alleged it has a right to discriminate against transgender workers. 

BuzzFeed reports that attorneys for Saks on Monday withdrew their motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Leyth Jamal (above), a transgender woman who worked at the company's Houston Galleria store. 

Jamal sued Saks for wrongful termination based on sex in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to a hostile work environment, retaliation and breach of contract. 

In their motion to dismiss, attorneys for Saks shockingly alleged that transgender workers aren't protected against discrimination under Title VII — despite findings to the contrary from both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and US Attorney General Eric Holder. 

Attorneys for Saks also misgendered Jamal and argued that Saks isn't bound by the nondiscrimination policy in its employee handbook, which includes gender identity. 

In response to Saks' filings, the Human Rights Campaign suspended the company's score of 90 on the Corporate Equality Index. HRC also joined the National Center for Lesbian Rights in filing a brief in Jamal's case supporting her claim under Title VII. Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into Saks' transgender-related employment practices in the Empire State. 

Saks finally relented, and in withdrawing their motion to dismiss, the company's attorneys wrote: 

“Saks is confident that, as this matter proceeds, the facts will demonstrate that Plaintiff’s allegations are wholly without merit, that Saks did not discriminate against Plaintiff, and that Saks’ policies and procedures are effective in ensuring an inclusive and diverse workplace free of discrimination and harassment."

Also Monday, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case supporting Jamal's claim under Title VII, BuzzFeed reports. 

It will be interesting to see how Jamal's case plays out from here, but it's already had a lasting impact. If nothing else, it's doubtful we'll see too many more major corporations with a record of support for the LGBT community claiming Title VII doesn't protect transgender workers. 

Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Goes On Trial


Eight months after the Houston City Council passed an Equal Rights Ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, a jury trial is scheduled to begin today in the lawsuit aimed at repealing the measure. 

But don't expect a verdict anytime soon: The trial could last six weeks or more as jurors go over thousands of pages of signatures on a petition to repeal the ordinance to determine how many are valid.

The trial will have little to do with the merits of the ordinance, which prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Houston was the last major US city to pass such an ordinance, but its enforcement is on hold pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. 

After the council approved the ordinance in May, anti-LGBT groups said they turned in more than 30,000 signatures on a petition to repeal it. However, city officials rejected the petition, saying it had only 16,500 valid signatures, fewer than the 17,269 needed to force the City Council to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot.

Anti-LGBT groups responded by filing a lawsuit, which resulted in a right-wing media firestorm after attorneys for the city subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who led opposition to the ordinance. Mayor Annise Parker eventually withdrew the subpoenas, but that didn't stop the anti-LGBT groups from staging an "I Stand Sunday" rally featuring Mike Huckabee, Phil Robertson and the Benham brothers. 

In court documents, the city's attorneys have accused anti-LGBT groups of fraud and forgery in gathering signatures, and they've filed a motion seeking summary judgment that could end the trial before it begins

If the trial proceeds and the anti-LGBT groups prevail, the ordinance likely would appear on the ballot in November. If the city prevails, the ordinance would finally go into effect. However, knowing the opposition, we're pretty sure they'd appeal. 

Out lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker has said she feels sorry for jurors who must sit through the trial but added the city will do whatever's necessary to defend the ordinance.   

Jury selection was scheduled to begin this morning, with opening arguments set for Tuesday. Stay tuned to Towleroad for continuing coverage. 

Anti-Gay Group Says It Has Enough Signatures To Repeal LGBT Protections In Plano, Texas


Opponents of LGBT protections in Plano, Texas, say they've gathered enough signatures to place a repeal of the city's Equal Rights Ordinance on the ballot in May. 

The Texas Pastor Council, led by Dave Welch (above), announced in an email Tuesday morning that it has gathered at least 5,500 signatures to repeal the ordinance — more than the 3,822 required by the Jan. 20 deadline:

As this is being written, the count reached 5,500, with as many as 2,000 more expected in the morning, hopefully bringing the total to well over 7,000. Volunteers will be working late into the night and tomorrow to verify as many of these signatures as possible before they are turned-in to the City Secretary on Tuesday. This effort will continue until every name is verified.

A spokesperson for the group thanked God for divine intervention and praised the dozens and dozens of volunteers from the diverse coalition that pulled together through the holiday season, to accomplish this remarkable goal. 

"In spite of the challenges created by the suspect timing of the City Council's passage of this ordinance, we set a goal to collect twice the minimum number of signatures needed. We want to send a clear message to Mayor LaRosiliere, and Councilmen Miner, Davidson, Smith, and Downs who all voted for this ordinance. You can ignore the citizens at the City Council meeting, but we will make our voices heard with this petition and next May at the polls. ... 

"We are certain that once Plano citizens realize the City Council has criminalized religious views about sex and gender, the ordinance will be rejected overwhelmingly at the polls. The citizens of Plano are good and decent and treat one another with respect, so criminalizing the beliefs of our diverse communities of faith does not advance the common good," said the spokesperson.  

The Plano City Council approved the ordinance in a 5-3 vote on Dec. 8 amid intense opposition from anti-LGBT groups and Republican elected officials.  

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. However, it has come under fire from transgender advocates over exemptions for bathrooms, nonprofits and educational institutions. 

Once they're turned in, city officials will begin the process of validating signatures on the petition. If they determine there are enough valid signatures, the City Council can either vote to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot in the next municipal election, which is May 9. 

In Houston, the Texas Pastor Council claimed to have more than 50,000 signatures to repeal an Equal Rights Ordinance last year. However, city officials determined that only 15,249 of the signatures were valid — fewer than the 17,269 needed to place the ordinance on the ballot. 

That prompted a lawsuit from opponents of Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, and the case is headed to trial this week. In court documents, the city has allleged that opponents of the ordinance forged signatures and used other fraudulent tactics. 

Anti-Gay Pastor: 'Pulpits Must Be Aflame' To Repeal LGBT Protections In Plano, Texas


Opponents of LGBT protections in Plano, Texas, must call upon the lord to gather enough signatures to repeal them and set pulpits aflame this weekend, according to an anti-gay pastor whose group is leading the effort. 

The City Council in Plano — a conservative suburb of Dallas with a population of 270,000 — approved the Equal Rights Ordinance in 5-3 vote a last month. Opponents, led by the Texas Pastor Council, must gather 3,822 valid signatures to force the City Council to either repeal the ordinance or place it on the May ballot.

In an email Friday, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch wrote to members: 

WElch.Dave"There will be ample time to continue to debate and discuss the numerous and serious problems with the Equal Rights Policy in detail – the only issue at hand is doing everything humanly possible while calling upon the Lord to secure enough valid signatures before Monday. ... The pulpits must be aflame with God’s truth and righteousness in calling openly and strongly for every voter to be faithful to this basic duty of stewardship. The current count of signatures really does not matter as IT CANNOT BE TOO MANY. EVERY valid signature is important and if people can’t remember if they have already signed it, instruct them to sign it anyway and only the few duplicates will be disqualified. Better that than no signature." 

Last year, the city of Houston rejected a petition from Welch's group aimed at repealing LGBT protections, saying it didn't have enough valid signatures. The group responded by suing the city, and the case is set for trial beginning Tuesday. In court documents, attorneys for the city have accused Welch's group of forgery and other dishonest signature-gathering tactics. But in his email Friday, Welch suggested they must do whatever it takes in Plano:

"Pulpits, PowerPoints, texts, tweets, Facebook, email broadcasts and even a recorded call to your church list from you are EACH an important component of a multiple contact approach to maximize results. Is the name of our Lord, His design of male, female, marriage and family, His moral laws as well as our basic freedoms and families’ well-being worth this effort? It is decision time. Remember, it is Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and the five city council members who railroaded this ordinance through with complete disrespect to the community and good government practices who 'threw the first punch.' LaRosiliere and the council declared that God either doesn’t exist or His word is false and that even basic biological facts are up for grabs. They assaulted the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God – not us.Our only question is whether we will allow the lie to stand or be responsible stewards and to do what is required of us to assure that His governing authority loaned to us and delegated by us to others is used for righteousness and justice – not deception and tyranny."

Opponents of the Plano ordinance have launched a website and Facebook page to spread fear and misinformation, including graphics like the one above. Ironically, Prestonwood Baptist Church — the evangelical megachurch serving as ground zero for opposition to the ordinance — has a history of child sex abuse and coverups, recent media reports have noted. 

Supporters of the ordinance have also begun to organize and prepare for a likely ballot fight. They've launched their own Facebook group, which has more than eight times as many followers as the opposition page. However, the ordinance also continues to draw criticism from the transgender community over its broad exemptions, including for schools, nonprofits and restrooms. 

Dallas-based trans activist Nell Gaither wrote: 

"If the problems with this are not called out, this sets a precedent for every other municipality in Texas. … This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more. If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years. And the worst part is that Equality Texas is now supporting it. Mainly to satisfy 'their funders.' They want a win to spread across the state. So this appears to be their model. How nice. Another Gay Inc. organization selling out the trans community in Plano, in Texas, and more."

On Friday, gay activist and Iraq war veteran Sean Sala shot video as he approached people gathering signatures to repeal the ordinance in a Plano post office parking lot. In the video, Sala accurately informs people that repealing the ordinance would also undo local protections based on veteran's status — talking one woman out of signing the petition.

Watch video of the encounter, AFTER THE JUMP ...  

Continue reading "Anti-Gay Pastor: 'Pulpits Must Be Aflame' To Repeal LGBT Protections In Plano, Texas" »

Saks Fifth Avenue's Crusade Against Transgender Equality Draws Scrutiny From NY Attorney General


If Saks Fifth Avenue believes it has a right to discriminate against transgender employees, just how widespread is the practice? 

That's what New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (below right) wants to know, in response to the high-end department store chain's repeated assertions that trans employees aren't cover under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

Last week we told you how the Human Rights Campaign had suspended Saks Fifth Avenue's favorable score on the Corporate Equality Index, after the company thumbed its nose at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's landmark 2012 decision saying Title VII protects trans workers. 

EricIn response to a lawsuit from transgender woman Leyth Jamal (above), a former sales associate at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Houston Galleria, attorneys for the company also blatantly misgendered Jamal in court documents and alleged the retailer isn't bound by its own nondiscrimination policy, which includes gender identity.    

Since then, the company effectively doubled down on its troubling anti-trans arguments in The New York Times:   

Gerald L. Storch, the chief executive of the parent company, Hudson’s Bay, also said Saks was a strong advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He declined to discuss an assertion by the luxury retailer’s lawyers, made in response to the former employee’s lawsuit, that “transsexuals are not a protected class” under the Civil Rights Act. ... 

 In a follow-up statement, Saks stressed that it “believes that all persons are protected against sex discrimination under Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

It said, however, that the plaintiff had based her case not on sex discrimination but on the issue of gender identity and transgender status, which it said some courts have ruled fall outside Title VII’s mandate. Saks will follow that precedent, the retailer said, “unless or until it is modified by the courts or the legislature.”

The NYT story drew a swift response from HRC:  

“Mr. Storch’s abhorrent decision not to renounce that position is not only morally wrong, but wrong on the law,” said Sarah Warbelow, HRC Legal Director. “For more than two years, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has considered discrimination based on gender identity actionable. This latest development further undermines Saks’ credibility and standing with the LGBT community - indeed, its standing with any consumer committed to equality. ... 

“While recognizing a company’s right to defend itself, we remain enormously concerned about the spurious legal route Saks is pursuing to get this case dismissed,” Warbelow said. “Mr. Storch’s silence on the issue in today’s New York Times deepens our skepticism about Saks’ commitment to workplace LGBT equality.”

Now, Schneiderman is getting involved, delivering a missive to Saks Fifth Avenue in which his office expresses concern about whether the company is also discriminating against trans employees in the Empire State. The New York Daily News reports that Schneiderman's office is requesting documents from Saks related to its policies, training materials and complaint processes:   

The letter by Kristen Clarke, Schneiderman civil rights bureau chief, cites a lawsuit in Texas in which Saks argued that discrimination on the basis of gender identify is not prohibited by federal law.

“As the chief law enforcement agency for the state of New York, our office is committed to ensuring compliance with federal, state , and local discrimination laws,” Clarke wrote in the letter obtained by The News. ... 

“The general position taken by Saks in the context of the Texas litigation raises concerns about Saks’s compliance with these laws in New York State.”

If you're still confused as to why Saks Fifth Avenue's position is so troubling, Slate has a good analysis. But for the LGBT community, the episode should serve as yet another wakeup call about the importance of continuing to push for state and federal job protections.  

In the 32 states that lack fully-inclusive bans on anti-LGBT employment discrimination, when push comes to shove and despite any lip service to the contrary, your employer's policy may not be worth the piece of paper it's written on.

Did Anti-LGBT Groups Forge Signatures On Petition To Repeal Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance?


The above image, via The Houston Press, shows numerous signatures that appear to be in the same handwriting on a petition to repeal Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance. 

After the Houston City Council passed the LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance last summer, opponents launched a petition drive seeking to place a repeal on the ballot. However, the city ultimately rejected the petition, saying it didn't contain enough valid signatures, prompting a lawsuit from the anti-LGBT groups. 

The lawsuit is set for trial on Jan. 20. And according to The Houston Press, attorneys for the city allege in court filings that some of the signatures were not only invalid for technical reasons — but also quite possibly forged: 

WoodfillSo far, most of the City's challenges to the petitions' validity has centered around technical -- and pretty boring -- matters like whether a page included a blank space for a circulators' signature. What's really intriguing, though, is the City's more recent contention that many names were forged, and that [plaintiff Jared] Woodfill "is no stranger" to fraudulent petitions.

In motions filed last November, attorneys for the City cited a suit where Woodfill -- then the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party -- accepted "facially valid" election petitions that "turned out to involve 'forgery, fraud, or other non-accidental defects discoverable only by independent investigation."

No one has argued that Woodfill knew the signatures in that election were invalid at the time he accepted them, but attorneys for the City point out that the court didn't buy Woodfill's argument that "the truthfulness of a circulator's affidavit is strictly a criminal matter."

The November motions include a sampling of the HERO signatures that City attorneys say were "purportedly from many different people, all of whom have the same handwriting." OH SNAP.


HouEquality.com, a website created by supporters of the ordinance, also recently posted evidence, including the above image, of possible fraud related to the repeal petition: 

We have included a publicly available document from the Harris County District Clerk's website with regards to the upcoming trial. These are excerpts of a deposition from an individual who gathered signatures for the opposition's petition efforts.

In short, he admits under oath, that he committed fraud and perjured himself by attesting that the signatures he turned in were all collected by him when, in fact, they were not.

The court document makes for an interesting read and certainly is not an isolated case.

As we have seen since the first public discussions about the ordinance, opponents have been willing to use dishonest tactics to achieve their end goal of eliminating the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. 

We will post another interesting court document this week that continues the trend of rooting out the rampant fraud in the petition process. 

Make no mistake, the opponents of HERO are not victims, they are calculating fear-mongers with little regard for ethics or the law.

As we mentioned last week, opponents of the ordinance are seeking a jury trial in the case, claiming it's their constitutional right, but the city is asking for a judge to decide the matter. The judge heard arguments on that issue last Friday, The Houston Chronicle reports: 

During a brief but lively hearing in the 152nd District Court in Houston, Judge Robert Schaffer said he will likely issue that decision Monday or Tuesday. Barring any delays, the trial is set to start Jan. 20.

Equal rights ordinance opponents are pushing to take the case before a jury instead of allowing Schaffer, as originally planned, to issue a decision from the bench. Attorneys for the city are strongly opposed to that format, saying it violates state election law to send the case to a jury. ... 

If nothing else, attorneys on both sides came away from Friday's hearing with the distinct impression that regardless of the form the trial takes, it will be a long one. Schaffer said he expected the trial to last between four and six weeks and that it will require the court to scrutinize the disputed petition pages and signatures. The plaintiffs submitted a 5,199-page petition. 


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