The 6 Supreme Court Cases LGBTQ People Need to Watch This Term

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October 2, 2017
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Well, it’s here! Today is the first Monday in October, which means it’s the day the Supreme Court begins its new term.

And this year, it’s a term full of promise. But it’s also a term full of threats to the future of civil rights in our nation, and to the equality of LGBTQ people.

Here’s what to look out for.

(Click on each case name to learn more about it.)

Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital (Employment Rights)

Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital

We are hopeful that the Justices will agree to hear Lambda Legal’s appeal in our case on behalf of Jameka Evans – a lesbian who was harassed and forced out of her job as a hospital security guard in Savannah, Georgia – and make clear that all employees across the country are protected against discrimination because of their sexual orientation. In light of our path-breaking victory before the entire Seventh Circuit in our Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College case earlier this year, there is now a clear split among the federal courts of appeal on whether Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination encompasses sexual orientation discrimination.

As witnessed last week when Lambda Legal argued before the assembled judges of the Second Circuit in Estate of Zarda v. Altitude Express, there also is a split between the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice on this vital question about whether members of our community can safely be out at work in all states.

These sorts of conflicts demand Supreme Court resolution.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Religiously-Motivated Discrimination)

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

This case raises the question of whether nondiscrimination laws can be circumvented by businesses’ claims that being required to treat all customers equally violates their religious principles or rights of expression.

We are fearful about how the Court will rule here, in which we will be filing a friend-of-the-court brief on October 30th. Should the baker in this case prevail, a giant loophole would be created that could make antidiscrimination laws meaningless – not just in connection with wedding services, but at hospitals, doctor’s offices, youth in out-of-home care facilities and adoption agencies.

While what the Justices do in the aforementioned two cases will have the most pointed impact on LGBTQ people, Lambda Legal has joined several other important briefs in cases before the Supreme Court this year.

Epic Systems v. Lewis (Employment Rights)

Epic Systems v. Lewis

Today’s Supreme Court session opens with the argument in Epic Systems v. Lewis and two related cases that raise the question of whether employers can force workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that ban any form of collective litigation by employees (such as class actions and multi-plaintiff suits), or whether this violates employee rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

Lambda Legal was proud to join a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Impact Fund that explains how concerted actions in federal courts that these agreements seek to foreclose have advanced the goals of our federal antidiscrimination laws and are uniquely effective in remedying and deterring systemic employment discrimination. The brief also shows how workers cannot use key civil rights legal theories or obtain broad injunctive relief if they can be limited to bringing only individual actions.

Gill v. Whitford (Voting Rights)

Gill v. Whitford

This case will be argued by former Lambda Legal board co-chair Paul Smith, who was co-counsel in our Lawrence v. Texas victory that struck down all remaining state sodomy laws in the nation.

Gill seeks to stop state legislatures from drawing election districts with the help of increasingly sophisticated computer programs designed to permanently entrench the party controlling the reins of power that effectively disenfranchise voters in the other party.

Lambda Legal joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Latino Justice/PRLDEF, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, the Asian Law Caucus and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in submitting an amicus brief in this case as well.

That brief – co-authored by former Lambda Legal board member and co-counsel Laura Brill – demonstrates that, when political districts are extreme, jurisdiction-wide and drawn with an intent to maintain one political party’s power, they violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. The brief also demonstrates how this rule is consistent with the federal Voting Rights Act, would help protect against the manipulation of minority voters and would help avoid distortion of voting rights jurisprudence under doctrines involving race.

IRAP v. Trump ("Muslim Ban")

IRAP v. Trump

Lambda Legal also joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the IRAP v. Trump challenge to the Trump administration’s “Muslim Ban.”

Because the version of the ban that is the subject of that case has now expired and is being replaced by a slightly modified version, the Supreme Court has asked the parties to brief whether the appeal is now moot. The Court took off calendar the argument that had been scheduled for October 10th.

We were gratified to work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State in submitting an amicus brief in this momentous case that also was joined by the Southern Poverty Law Center; Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice; People For the American Way Foundation; the Riverside Church in the City of New York; and seven faith leaders from Colorado, Florida, Minnesota and New York.

Our brief explained how the ban disfavored and denigrated Muslims in ways that violate the obligation under the First Amendment of government neutrality toward all religions and in ways that foment the social divisiveness and violence the Establishment Clause was meant to forestall. The brief also noted the common concerns of the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause to safeguard against governmental targeting of minorities.

We drew on the continuing history of stigmatization of the LGBTQ community and our rejection as outsiders to explain how official government discrimination against vilified groups – both LGBTQ people and religious minorities – endorses and fuels irrational persecution and violence that the Constitution seeks to avert.

Moore v. Bryant (Racial Justice)

Moore v. Bryant

This case is on appeal from the Fifth Circuit, which ruled that an African American man – who is a public defender in Mississippi – had no right to sue state officials over the state’s flag that he must pass every day as he enters the courthouse, which features the image of the Confederate battle flag on it.

Lambda Legal joined the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer in supporting a petition to have the Supreme Court hear an appeal from the Fifth Circuit ruling.

Our brief discusses the flag’s association with white supremacy and the psychological and physical harms inflicted upon minority group members when the government embraces such a stigmatizing message, arguing that this should be sufficient to provide “standing” to challenge such government action.

The Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear this case, but it has asked the state of Mississippi to respond to the petition.

This group of cases demonstrates how important our courts – and particularly the Supreme Court – are in defending the rights of minorities.

This, naturally, includes LGBTQ people and people living with HIV.

One of the most frightening results of the past election is how the current administration is trying to load the federal courts with individuals who are not only not committed to that principle, but who instead have long histories of fighting against equal rights for all. We must continue to fight back and resist these efforts, or else the promises of our Constitution may soon be empty words.

Lambda Legal is committed to continuing that fight and ever reminding our nation’s judges of the Constitution they swore to uphold.