Judge grants certain businesses protection from sex discrimination liability

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) – Sincerely held religious beliefs can be used to shield certain for-profit businesses from federal sex discrimination liability established in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a Texas district court judge ruled Sunday (Oct. 31).

“Forcing a religious employer to hire, retain and accommodate employees who conduct themselves contrary to the employer’s views regarding homosexuality and gender identity is not the least restrictive means of promoting that interest, especially when Defendants are willing to make exceptions to Title VII for secular purposes,” Judge Reed O’Connor said in his ruling. The nondenominational Bear Creek Bible Church in Keller, and Braidwood Management, Inc., in Katy brought the class action against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Braidwood has established Title VII places a substantial burden on its religious exercise, and Defendants fail to meet its burden to show a compelling interest,” O’Connor ruled in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth. “But even if their broad formulation of their interest in ‘preventing all forms of discrimination’ were sufficient, Defendants have not selected the least restrictive means.”

The U.S. government grants Title VII exemptions to certain secular employers, O’Connor pointed out, including exemptions for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and permits employers “on or near Indian reservations to discriminate on the basis of race or national origin in favor of Indians.

“Since Defendants extend these exemptions to nonreligious decisions, they must treat requests for religious exemptions the same,” O’Connor wrote.

In the protected class of businesses, employment restrictions regarding sexual conduct, dress codes and restroom use are protected by the RFRA and the First Amendment, O’Connor ruled. But businesses may be liable for sex discrimination in matters restricting bisexual conduct, sex-reassignment surgery and hormone treatment.

Bear Creek Bible Church and other religious nonprofits are already exempt from LGBTQ liability under Title VII, O’Connor said, also citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Regardless of its employees’ ministerial or non-ministerial status, an employer may be exempt from Title VII entirely if it qualifies as a ‘religious’ employer,” the judge wrote. “The text of Title VII’s religious accommodation provides ‘[Title VII] shall not apply to … a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.’”

The plaintiffs sought a class action ruling after a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Bostock v. Clayton County (Ga.) established sexual orientation as a Title VII protection, but left religious liberty questions in play.

“The Bostock Court expressly left open the implications for religious liberties and other matters arising from its decision,” O’Connor wrote in Sunday’s ruling. “Plaintiffs present those questions here and seek a declaration that they, and others similarly situated, are permitted to refrain from employing those who engage in conduct that violates their sincerely held religious beliefs and First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs also seek a declaration that Bostock does not prohibit sex-neutral codes of conduct.”

The full decision is available here.

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