'Spirit of Stonewall' lives on as LGBT fights play out in federal courts

Kristen Johanson
June 28, 2019 - 8:10 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Fifty years after the Stonewall riots galvanized a national movement for LGBT rights, the battle is still being fought in the courts, with one major case headed to the nation's highest court this fall, and two local cases not far behind.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments surrounding civil rights, and whether gender identity and sexual orientation are protected under Title VII from job discrimination. In October, oral arguments for two equality cases, combined as one, will be heard by the nation's highest court, with a decision expected to come down next summer.

The first case involves a transgender woman who was fired from her position in a funeral home as she was transitioning. The other involves two people who say they were fired for being gay.

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"The spirit of Stonewall will continue, regardless of what decision comes down in June of 2020, and hopefully that will mobilize in a better direction than we are in now," says Sasha Buchert, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, a national legal organization advocating for LGBT rights.

Sasha Buchert, Senior Attorney Lambda Legal
Courtesy of Lambda Legal

"I do believe and I am confident that the Supreme Court, looking at the law will come out the right way," Buchert says. "The consequences of a good decision would be that it will clarify the law in a lot of ways, and it would reduce litigation."

But if not?

"It would disenfranchise (transgender people), and eliminate those protections and be devastating."

Two other local cases are making their way up the federal litigation ladder.

Philadelphia's Catholic Social Services is expected to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court soon, after a federal judge ruled the city lawfully pulled their foster and adoption agency contract, claiming the religious group discriminated against gay and lesbian couples.

"After hearing the case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and said the city was entitled to enforce their discrimination requirements," says Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney in the case and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia.

Mary Catherine Roper, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia
Kristen Johanson/KYW Newsradio

Another major case involves Boyertown Area School District. Students and their parents sued the district because schools were allowing transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room facilities that corresponded to the gender they identified with, asking the feds to issue an injuction against the district.

The lower court agreed with Boyertown. The upset families then appealed to the Third Circuit.

"That court agreed with the Federal trial court and said no, the school district was within its rights to to provide transgender kids with the right to use facilities that matched their gender identity," says Roper.

At the time, Boyertown senior Aidan Destefano, who is transgender, testified on behalf of the school district.

The families appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, but last month, the justices declined to hear their case, allowing Boyertown transgender students to continue to use the facilities they needed. 

"Sometimes (the U.S. Supreme Court) takes issues because they think they are going to just keep coming back until they decide it," says Roper.
 "And sometimes they wait for more decisions to see what the courts are doing with them, before they decide to sort of take it and break the tie."

Roper says the decision next summer about equal protections for gender identity and sexual orientation could directly affect both the Boyertown and the Catholic Social Services cases.

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Fifty years after the uprising at Stonewall that marked a turning point in the fight for equality, KYW Newsradio examines the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ rights movement through voices from the Philadelphia region in the series "Stonewall Uprising 50th Anniversary."