Texas Judge Favors Religious Businesses over LGBTQ rights

On October 31, US District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, ruled that businesses that hold religious beliefs are exempt from LGBTQ discrimination liability. O’Connor held that Braidwood Management Inc. is exempted from the LGBTQ anti-bias protections under the first amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The LGBTQ anti-bias protection comes from the Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

O’Connor also ruled that religious nonprofits such as Bear Creek Bible Church can deny employment or fire an LGBTQ employee under Title VII’s religious exemptions. The exemption in Title VII allows religious exemptions against LGBTQ anti-bias protection for “religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society.”

Braidwood Management, a company that runs multiple Christian healthcare companies in Katy, Texas, and Bear Creek Bible Church in Keller, Texas, sued the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit comes in the aftermath of the landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, GA, which ruled that Title VII can apply to LGBTQ workers.

Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the Bostock ruling left questions of whether and how the anti-discrimination provisions can apply to religious entities. “But how these doctrines protecting religious liberty inter­act with Title VII are questions for future cases too,” Gorsuch stated.

What the failed Bostock decision failed to do was define how religious businesses and other religious entities can pass through the anti-discrimination provisions. Braidwood and Bear Creek used Title VII’s religious exemptions and other similar entities to make employment decisions grounded on religious beliefs.

Scott McElhaney, an attorney of Jackson Walker LLP in Dallas, said that the “Supreme Court didn’t decide the issue of the extent to which businesses that are owned by folks with strong religious beliefs might be exempt from that general rule.” “This opinion from Judge O’Connor is the first ruling on that issue,” McElhaney added.

Stephen Hotze, a conservative activist and physician, operates Braidwood Management and has up to 70 employees. According to court filings, Hotze does not allow employees to engage in “homosexual behavior or gender non-conforming conduct of any sort.” Hotze added that these acts are “complicit in sin, violating his sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Bear Creek Church also holds its employees to live according to what the Bible says in matters of gender and sexuality. 

Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty scholar and a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, believes that O’Connor’s ruling will be appealed. “The appeal could go off on any one of several side issues,” Laycock said. “But if they reach the merits, I think the Fifth Circuit is likely to affirm,” he added.

Gregory Nevins, senior counsel for Lambda Legal — a civil rights organization that handles litigations for most LGBTQ communities — is hopeful that a successful appeal will be made. Nevins said that O’Connor’s ruling is “so bad and contains so many errors that even the Fifth Circuit will reverse at least in part.”

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