Over the past month, after the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, much has been made in the press about how it is unprecedented for the court to consider a company’s religious beliefs in making its decisions.

The issue of taking into account a corporation’s religious belief in the workplace has been also catapulted to the center of the discussion regarding consideration of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill which would prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation on a federal level.

Some are now asking that ENDA, if passed, have an exception for religious organizations.  In response, a number of prominent civil rights groups have withdrawn their support for the bill.

A joint statement issued by several organizations, including the ACLU, said the following:

ENDA’s discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations – including hospitals, nursing homes and universities – a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people. The provision essentially says that anti-LGBT discrimination is different – more acceptable and legitimate – than discrimination against individuals based on their race or sex.

Here’s the thing, rightly or wrongly, the notion of a religious exemption in an employment discrimination law isn’t unprecedented; Connecticut passed one 23 years ago.

And it hasn’t been amended since.

I can now hear from many of you: Wait, what?

Yes, right there in Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 46a-81p is a specific exemption for religious corporations to the prohibition of sexual orientation employment discrimination.

The provisions of sections 4a-60a and 46a-81a to 46a-81o, inclusive, shall not apply to a religious corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society with respect to the employment of individuals to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society of its activities, or with respect to matters of discipline, faith, internal organization or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law which are established by such corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society.

Now, before you start reading “religious corporation” to include companies like Hobby Lobby, the answer may not be that simple.

For one thing, the sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws don’t define what they are explicitly; elsewhere in state law there is a reference however, to “religious corporations” and societies.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 33-264a states that: “Three or more persons uniting for public worship may form a corporation or a voluntary association. Such a corporation shall be called a religious corporation and such a voluntary association shall be called a religious society.”

So perhaps including a company like a Hobby Lobby into this definition may not fit.

But what IS meant by “religious corporations” in this particular section on employment law? How do courts define it? Is it just a church or something more, like an organization’s for-profit bookstore? Well, I haven’t located a court case that has confronted the issue head on.

The Connecticut Supreme Court has only cited the statute by off-handed refereces that the legislature made an exemption for “religious organizations.”  But that too is a bit odd, because the word “organizations” isn’t in the statute itself. (See, for example, the court’s use in Patino v. Birken Manufacturing.)

I’ve taken a look at the bill analysis from the Office of Legislative Research from its passage in 1991 and it isn’t all that helpful. It states merely that “the bill exempts religious organizations from these employment provisions but only as to their employment of people to carry out their work.” (There’s that use of “organizations” again.)  An earlier version of the bill had a narrower exemption too, but that was expanded through a bill amendment at the time.

The Connecticut legislature has considered amendments, over time, that would, for example, put the sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws into the more general provisions prohibiting discrimination, but even this year’s Senate Bill 385, which would make that type of change, would keep the language of the “religious corporation” exemption as is.

I suppose that the lack of litigation on the state’s law exempting “religious corporations” from compliance with the anti-discrimination law may be indicative of its general acceptance here in Connecticut or its narrow application. And perhaps a court looking at this will find that for-profit corporations are just inherently different than religious ones and that the use of the language here precludes a broader interpretation.

But I suspect that the lack of discussion of this exemption is also due to the fact that many people are unaware of its existence or the specific language of the exemption either.

Either way, in light of the Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court, perhaps we will see the Connecticut General Assembly revisit this statute. While an exemption for a “religious corporation” may have been a necessary compromise in 1991 at the time of the bill’s original passage, I wonder if legislators believe it should be construed as broadly as some might argue after Hobby Lobby.

After all, if corporations are “people” too, it’s not that far of a leap for someone to argue that they can be “religious corporations” as well.

A federal bill banning workplace discrimination (known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act “ENDA) on the basis of sexual orientation cleared a key procedural hurdle last night as the Senate voted to begin debate on the measure, 61-30.   Passage by the Senate is now expected later this week.   (You can find my prior coverage of ENDA beginning here.)

It’s a significant step for sure. But the prospects for ENDA in the House of Representatives look grim. 

A spokesperson for Speaker John Boehner said the Speaker would not support the bill.  “The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs.”

Connecticut’s experience with its own workplace ban on sexual orientation discrimination does not support the Speaker’s arguments.

According to the statistics from the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, in 2009-2010 (the last readily accessible statistics) there were only 53 employment claims statewide claiming sexual orientation discrimination.  There were nearly 10 times the number of race discrimination claims that were filed over the same period. 

That’s not to say that some of those complaints aren’t frivolous. Indeed, there were several claims that same year that were readily dismissed by the CHRO without further investigation. 

But that hardly justifies allowing a company to purposely discriminate against someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.  Apple’s CEO Tim Cook nailed it in a recent op-ed in the Wall St. Journal. 

Our good friend, Jon Hyman, posted about this yesterday:

Anti-discrimination laws that exclude sexual orientation and gender identity suggest that these forms of discrimination are permissible. Additionally, while I look forward to embracing the day that all forms of discrimination cease to exist, I would not argue for the abolition of all anti-discrimination laws if that were to occur. Instead, I would argue that the laws are working, and are needed as a deterrent to maintain the status quo.

For employers in Connecticut, there will be less impact from ENDA then in many other states. But for employers that still think its ok to treat your employees differently because of their sexual orientation, your time is thankfully running short.

As many wait for the Supreme Court’s decision later this term on same-sex marriages, one issue that seems to get lost in the shuffle is the fact that there is still no federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation.

For employers in Connecticut, this is basically a non-issue because Connecticut has long since prohibited it.  But for employers who want consistency and for those who believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is just outdated, the lack of a federal bill rubs some the wrong way.

Earlier this week, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut hosted his first Google Hangout.  (Again, for those still new to the technology, you can get your primer here.)  It is now found on YouTube. 

He was kind enough to take questions over Twitter (another reason you should get on there) and responded to my question: What are the prospects for ENDA — the federal bill that would prohibit sexual orientation discrimination?

At about the 17:15 mark of the talk, he provided an in-depth discussion about what the bill is and its prospects.

“My hope is that we see an absolute sea change in the rights of gays and lesbians in the next month or so” after the Supreme Court’s ruling next month on gay marriage, Murphy said.  But “save for that action by the Supreme Court, we should pass ENDA.” 

As for the prospects itself? “Not too good” given that “largely social conservative Republicans control the House of Representatives,” said Murphy. 

But even in the Senate, it’s prospects were less than clear.  As Murphy observed: “I bet you we could get 50 votes in the Senate” but he didn’t think there were 60 votes which is now the new magic number to get bills passed to break a potential filibuster. 

“So, Daniel, I think the answer to your question is, unfortunately though you’ve got a lot of strong voices like myself, it’ll be hard to get that done.”

I thank Senator Murphy for taking the time to address this issue.

Since Murphy’s comments earlier this week, a opinion piece was also posted in the Washington Post calling for passage of ENDA

So, while its prospects right now are weak, is Senator Murphy correct that we will see a change after the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage? Only time will tell. 

President Obama was re-elected to a second term last night (something forecasted by stats guru Nate Silver). What does it mean for employers?

Four More Years

I won’t go quite as far as fellow blogger Jon Hyman, who said this morning that “it just doesn’t matter” who won last night.  I think it matters in part.

But the impact for employers will probably be far less than was suggested during the campaign season.  Much will depend on the level of compromise that comes out of Washington.

Here are four areas where we should keep an eye on:

  • “Obamacare” — With Obama’s re-election, the idea that universal healthcare will somehow be repealed is done.  With implementation of key provisions due in 2014, employers who have been on the fence about the changes that are required to their benefit system should now start moving forward.  Verdict: It’s happening.
  • NLRB — The National Labor Relations Board has been flexing its muscle under Obama’s first term.  This political agency will likely try to continue to push forward changes to election rules and posters — even as the litigation regarding those items promises to slow things down.   This is one area that employers ought to pay close attention to. Verdict: NLRB remains an agency to watch.
  • ENDA — The Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit employers nationwide from discriminating against employees based on their sexual orientation, has been discussed a lot. But with same-sex laws passing in Maine and Maryland, the sentiment in the country appears to be shifting.  While this won’t have much impact in Connecticut (where state law already prohibits such discrimination), I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new push for this bill’s passage.  Verdict: Some compromise bill is likely on ENDA.
  • Paycheck Fairness Act — Stephanie Thomas of the Proactive Employer blog suggests this morning that the gender pay gap was an issue in the last term and will remain a priority in the next term.  (Check out her post for other potential issues.) I tend to agree with her, but with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it’s hard to see how a compromise is going to be shaped here.  Verdict: My guess is that we won’t see passage of this bill anytime soon.

But as I said before, it’s still too early to figure out what the next four years will bring.  Even driving into work, I heard a dozen differing opinions about what the election “means”.  We tend to overstate the results from elections on the morning after, and I think the same applies here.

The fact is we’ve had gridlock on the Hill for the last two years; no employment laws have been passed. Will the gridlock in Washington continue? Perhaps.  But if it starts to break, then perhaps we will start to see some more compromise measures being passed.

 

As we continue our series this week of highlighting employment law issues for the candidates, next up is Rep. Paul Ryan.  (For previous posts and groundrules, see here, here, and here.)

Given his record in the House of Representatives, there are plenty of other topics that could be addressed as well including the ADAAA.  But what would you ask Rep. Paul Ryan as it relates to employment law?

And be sure to check out posts from other employment law blogs here, here, here, and here.

All this week, this blog (and other employment law blogs — here, here, here and here) are posting employment law-related questions for the major-party candidates for President and Vice President.  Today’s turn: Mitt Romney.

Courtesy Mitt Romney Campaign

(For a recap of this process — and a reminder that these questions should not be interpreted as being “for” or “against” a candidate — see my post from yesterday.)

  • On your campaign website,you state that the “first step in improving labor policy will be to ensure that our labor laws create a stable and level playing field on which businesses can operate. As they hire, businesses should not have to worry that a politicized federal agency will rewrite the rules of the employment game without warning and without regard for the law.”  Yet, the NLRB is — by its nature — a political agency that shifts its agenda depending on who the President is.  Under George W. Bush, it became more pro-business and under Obama, it became more pro-union.  Are you suggesting that you would try to de-politicize the NLRB? If so, how? And if not, aren’t the changes you propose simply adding to the political nature of the NLRB?
  • In 1994, as a candidate for Senate, you supported the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.  In 2007, you indicated that you would not support ENDA and that you believed this policy is best implemented at a state level.  Why have you changed your mind on this and why are sexual orientation discrimination policies best left for individual states when we already have federal laws on age, race and gender discrimination?
  • More retaliation claims are filed with the EEOC than any other protected characteristic. Indeed, the Supreme Court — in some cases unanimously — has endorsed a fairly broad view of such claims. Do you believe there is an epidemic of retaliation claims? Do you believe the issue needs to be addressed through legislation?  

What employment law questions would you like to see Mitt Romney address? Feel free to add them in the comment section below.

Over the last several days, I’ve been attending the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in Chicago as a delegate from Connecticut to its main governing board (you can watch the webcast replay here, featuring a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder). The ABA accomplishes quite a bit and if you’ve been following my Twitter feed lately, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

And while the dog days of summer are clearly upon us, there are a few items to catch up on this week.

 

With the election just two weeks away, employers can start to draw a sharper focus on the national issues at stake in the upcoming Presidential election. That said, much of what will happen will also depend on what happens with various Congressional races.  In other words, even if Senator McCain is elected President, we’re still likely to see various issues raised in the next session of Congress.

Michael Moore has a terrific piece this week outlining the various bills that are likely to get debated after the election.  I’ll be discussing some of them in upcoming posts (as well as issues relating to Connecticut’s races), but Michael’s post provides a good roadmap to the bills.

Among them:

Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800 and S. 1041)

Summary:  The EFCA amends the NLRA to change the procedures for union certification and first contract negotiation.

Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3685/ no Senate Bill)

Summary:  ENDA adds sexual orientation to the protected classes under Title VII for all employers except religious organizations.

 Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831/ S. 1843)

Summary:  FPA overturns the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. effectively eliminating the 180 or 300-day statute of limitations for filing a wage-related discrimination claim.

 

Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1338/ S. 766)

Summary:  PFA changes the burden of proof in gender based pay claims requiring the employer to affirmatively demonstrate that any pay differential is not based on sex.

 

RESPECT ACT (H.R. 1644/ S. 969)

Summary:  The so-called Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers (RESPECT) Act would change the NLRA definition of “supervisor” to exclude “working supervisors” who do not spend a majority of their worktime in strictly managerial duties excluding the tradition duties of assigning work and directing the activities of others.

The post also discusses the impact that each bill would have on existing law and the candidates’ respective positions. 

(For another take, see The Word on Employment Law’s collection of posts on the issues here.)

The big headlines this week in employment law centeredThe U.S. Capitol - Public Domain around the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).  Various blogs have written about the law generally and they provide a good foundation for understanding the law in general. In particular:

  • The Volokh Conspiracy has summarized the law and added a scholarly approach to analyzing it. 
  • Workplace Horizons has continued their tracking of the bill and notes that Senator Ted Kennedy plans to introduce a similar piece of legislation in the Senate. 
  • Workplace Prof notes that a Presidential veto is likely, even though some compromises (such as excluding gender identity) have been made. 

Connecticut, however, already has a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. So is this a big deal?

The early answer is, probably not.  One significant caveat is that the legislation — which has already been modified extensively — is likely to go through another round of compromises at the Senate.  Thus, it is difficult to predict what will end up in the final piece of legislation.  Connecticut recently revised its laws on sexual orientation and civil union earlier this year, as noted in an earlier blog post

Assuming the legislation remains the same as printed now, there are several distinctions that would need to be determined under Connecticut law. First, ENDA appears to allow for claims of discrimination based on the perception of a person’s sexual orientation. Connecticut has no corresponding provision and thus, ENDA would "trump" the state law and allow such a claim.  The definition of "sexual orientation" also differs under Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 46a-81a, with Connecticut defining it as having a "preference" for homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality.

Second, ENDA only applies to employers who have 15 or more employees; Connecticut’s law applies to much smaller employers.  Thus, Connecticut law will control here given the broad definition.

Third, ENDA contains an exemption from compliance for religious institutions, copying the protected afforded to those institutions under Title VII.   Connecticut does have an exemption for sexual orientation claims against religious organizations, but it is unclear if courts will interpret this statute differently than ENDA, if passed. 

All told, if passed, ENDA will certainly have some impact on Connecticut laws. However, at this stage, the impact would be minor — particularly when compared to other states who do not have such laws. 

A few posts this week caught my eye:

  • First, the HR Carnival has a great post this week about various HR issues, including how to train managers better.  And, best yet, you’ll find a link back to this blog.  Thanks to the writers of the Carnival for the reference.
  • Kris Dunn, over at HR Captialist,  has an interesting post about how HR professionals can help their companies keep benefit costs down. As Kris says, "If You Don’t Have a Meaningful Answer to this Question From Your CEO, Update Your Resume…"
  • Evil HR Lady, has an informative post as to how employers can prepare for terminations and how to educate managers about the right ways to do so.
  • Workplace Horizons has been right on top of the Congress’ consideration of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  Near daily updates about the rumors of various amendments have been going up and its a useful site to keep track of certain pieces of legislation. 
  • And finally, The Employment Blawg has been posting a series of hypotheticals on different workplace situations including violence, workplace and overtime.  As stated on the blog "Read Trucks and Guns: An Employment Law Fable, Part I (Overtime for Truck Drivers) for the whole story. . . . It ends with an HR manager getting shot by the driver (just hypothetically)."