Justice department says rights law doesn’t protect gays
The Department of Justice has filed court papers arguing that a major federal civil rights law does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, taking a stand against a decision reached under President Barack Obama.
The department’s move to insert itself into the New York case was an uncommon example of top officials in Washington opining directly in the courts on what is an important but essentially private dispute between a worker and his boss over gay rights issues. Civil rights advocates immediately criticized the filing not only for the arguments it advanced, but also for having been made on the same day that President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people would be banned from serving in the military.
The department’s amicus brief was filed Wednesday in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Donald Zarda, a sky diving instructor. In 2010, Zarda was fired by his employer, a Long Island, N.Y.-based company called Altitude Express. Before taking a female client on a tandem dive, Zarda told the woman he was gay to assuage any awkwardness that might arise from the fact that he would be tightly strapped to her during the jump. The woman’s husband complained to the company, which subsequently fired Zarda. Zarda then sued Altitude Express, claiming it had violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in the workplace based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has now stepped into the fray, as BuzzFeed reported Wednesday night. In its court brief, the department noted that every Con- gress since 1974 has declined to add a sexual-orientation provision to Title VII, despite what it called “notable changes in societal and cultural attitudes.” The brief also claimed that the federal government, as the largest employer in the country, has a “substantial and unique interest” in the proper interpretation of Title VII.
“The sole question here is whether, as a matter of law, Title VII reaches sexual orientation discrimination,” the brief said. “It does not, as has been settled for decades. Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.”