Federal Appeals Court Will Weigh Effort To Use Personal Religious Beliefs To Evade Gay Bias Laws

October 19, 2001 12:00 am

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CINCINNATI – A Kentucky man who wants his purported personal religious beliefs to free him from complying with civil rights laws at his business takes his fight to a federal appeals court today, where final briefs were filed in a constitutional “test case” that may impact a broad range of civil rights protections nationwide, said the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dr. J. Barrett Hyman, a gynecologist and Southern Baptist from Louisville, is seeking the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in employment at his medical practice. He is asking the court to greatly expand the local laws’ current exemptions for religious institutions (like churches) — and to instead exempt all employers who claim to have personal religious beliefs compelling them to discriminate.

“Dr. Hyman and the right-wing group behind his lawsuit want to get a new legal precedent that would virtually knock out gay rights laws nationwide – taking down other civil rights laws in the process,” said Leslie Cooper, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project. “We also want to get the strongest precedent we can, to shut down these attacks on local communities once and for all. So we’re glad he’s appealed this and given us that chance.”

After a federal judge ruled against Hyman in March, he took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. Final briefs were filed today by Hyman (represented by Pat Robertson’s legal group), attorneys for the City of Louisville and Jefferson County, and the ACLU, which represents the local LGBT activists that passed the Fairness Ordinances in 1999.

Hyman today asked the appeals court to reverse the lower court’s ruling, arguing that the local laws’ current religious exemptions are, in fact, unfair because they only exempt religious institutions. Legal papers filed on Hyman’s behalf today repeatedly refer to the need to protect “believers such as Hyman” and “employers like Hyman.”

Today, the ACLU took the unusual step of releasing excerpts from a deposition in the case that Cooper conducted of Hyman under oath. “With a federal appeals court being asked to carve up civil rights laws for ’employers like Hyman,’ the public has a right to know just what would happen if we allowed this kind of exemption,” Cooper said. “What kinds of employers might be released from all our civil rights laws? What exactly are the beliefs that might merit such an exemption?”

The deposition excerpts released today “shed some alarming light” on these questions, Cooper said. The material includes information on: Hyman’s fear that if he hired a lesbian to work in his gynecology practice, it would be akin to putting a drink in front of an alcoholic; how Hyman ascertains the sexual preferences and practices of people applying for jobs at his company; Hyman’s desire to have a single mother who works for him quote Bible verses to him daily; why Hyman thinks African-American people want and need “special rights,” and how the main distinction is that, “Black people can’t change”; Hyman’s hope to convert some doctors he knows from Hindu to Christian; and Hyman’s combative refusal to state whether his religious beliefs also compel him to oppose interracial dating.

“Let’s be clear: Dr. Hyman has a right to believe whatever he wants — but he doesn’t have a right to insist that people who work with and for him believe it, too,” Cooper said. “This country’s commitment to fairness and justice is stronger than any attempt to use religion as a weapon against laws that, in fact, protect religious liberty and ensure equality. That’s what this is about.”

Communities nationwide grapple with how to protect religious liberty while prohibiting discrimination, the ACLU said, and the 34-page federal court ruling against Hyman can be a useful tool in striking this balance. That ruling is at: http://www.kywd.uscourts.gov. Additional information on LGBT rights laws – including specific information on appropriately protecting religious freedom without weakening bias protections – is at the ACLU’s Equality Toolkit: http://archive.aclu.org/GayRights.

The case is J. Barrett Hyman, M.D. v. City of Louisville, et al., No. 01-5531.

The excerpts of Dr. Hyman’s deposition that are being released today are online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/Hyman_deposition.html.

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