Analysis Law and Policy

Roberts Court Takes Up Issue of Accommodating Pregnant Workers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Roberts Court is poised to clarify what employers must do to accommodate pregnant workers on the job. This could be terrible news.

The Supreme Court will start next term right where it left off this summer—by scrutinizing the rights of women in the workplace. Specifically, the Court will consider the case of Peggy Young, a part-time delivery driver for UPS whose discrimination claim puts a spotlight on the vulnerabilities many workers face if they become pregnant.

While an employee with UPS, Young became pregnant, and her doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Young approached her employer for a light-duty assignment as a temporary accommodation for the medical restrictions related to her pregnancy. UPS refused her request, saying the company had a “pregnancy-blind” policy of giving light-duty job assignments to people who are injured on the job, those who are disabled under federal disability rights law, or those who have lost their federal driver certification. Because UPS wouldn’t accommodate Young, she was forced to take unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy and, as a result, lost wages and her health insurance coverage just a few months prior to the birth of her child.

Young sued, claiming UPS’s refusal to offer her a light-duty assignment to accommodate her pregnancy violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which requires that employers treat pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work” as non-pregnant employees when deciding accommodations. Young and her attorneys argued that UPS’s “pregnancy-blind” policy violated the law, because by denying Young an accommodation available to others, it treated Young, a pregnant worker, differently than her non-pregnant co-workers who were similar in their inability to work. Young lost at the district court, which held that companies like UPS could adopt rules that allow employees similar to Young to go on light duty, while blocking Young from receiving the same accommodation for her pregnancy, without violating the PDA.

While Young was litigating her claims, Congress amended another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for a broad range of temporary disabilities that would affect Young’s claims in her case. However, those amendments were not in place when Young sued, leaving open the question of if, and how, the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act work with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to require employers to accommodate workplace requests like Young’s.

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It’s an important question to answer, but given the Roberts Court’s open hostility toward the rights of workers, and especially women workers, some hoped the Court would not grant review. The Obama administration urged the Court not to take the case, saying that while the lower courts were wrong to deny Young’s claims, Supreme Court action at this time would be premature. The Obama administration argued that since Young’s case, Congress has augmented the law while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is finalizing new guidelines for employers in accommodating pregnant workers. The lower courts need time to consider those changes, and employers need time to react as well, the Obama administration argued.

Despite the urging of the Obama administration, or maybe in spite of it, the Roberts Court took up the case anyway.

Three-quarters of women entering the labor force will be pregnant on the job at some point in their lives, and issues of workplace accommodations for pregnant workers increasingly affect low-wage women workers. So this is a big case, and one that no matter the ruling will have a wide reach. It’s also a case that wades into issues of gender stereotyping, gender-neutral leave policies, and cultural assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ “differential attachments to the labor force,” including the way a cultural reverence for pregnancy and new mothers contributes to instances of pregnancy discrimination. These are murky waters for the conservatives on the Roberts Court.

Given this backdrop, there’s a dangerous but tempting argument teed up for the justices. Similar to the “post-racial” arguments made to support gutting affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas, UPS and its supporters have attempted to make a “post-sex discrimination” argument and claim Young wants pregnant workers to be treated more favorably than any other protected class covered by the workplace anti-discrimination law Title VII. Furthermore, they argue, the policy in place at UPS was a result of an extensively negotiated collective bargaining agreement. That means the conservatives on the Court could side with UPS, leaving a majority of women workers even more vulnerable to workplace discrimination in the name of deferring to collective bargaining agreements.

The Court will hear the case in its next term, beginning in October. A date for arguments has not yet been set.

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

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