By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) – A Christian-owned wellness center is exempt from the federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The unanimous three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Braidwood Management, which runs an alternative health center in Texas, cannot be sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over its policy that employees who engage in homosexual or gender non-conforming conduct will be fired.
Circuit Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the majority that without the shield, the company would be forced to “comply wholeheartedly” with policy it sees as “sinful,” upholding a ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth.
However, the court reversed O’Connor’s ruling that Braidwood could bring the case as a class action on behalf of other religious businesses. That means the exemption now only applies directly to Braidwood.
Smith was joined by Circuit Judges Edith Clement and Cory Wilson. All three judges were appointed by Republican presidents.
The EEOC and a lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Braidwood sued the EEOC after the agency updated its enforcement guidance in 2021 to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which said bias against gay and transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The company said it was run according to Christian beliefs, including opposition to homosexuality and upholding specific gender roles. It had sought a court order shielding it from EEOC enforcement under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law limiting government agencies’ ability to burden anyone’s religious freedom.
The company is separately suing the Biden administration over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health insurance plans, including those funded by employers, cover preventive care services including HIV-preventing drugs, which Braidwood also says violates its beliefs. O’Connor, who is also presiding over that case, ruled in the company’s favor in that case, though the order is partly on hold for now.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi & Shri Navaratnam)
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