Utah’s attorney general defends his backing of a federal case seeking to roll back LGBTQ job protections

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Attorney General Sean Reyes at a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. The Republican is drawing fire for backing a Michigan court case aimed are reversing federal non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is defending his decision to join legal efforts before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of limiting job protections for LGBTQ workers.

With Reyes’ authorization, Utah has joined Nebraska and 14 other states in urging the nation’s high court to review a federal ruling in Michigan against a funeral home over its firing of a transgender employee — a move that has drawn criticism from at least one Utah group as wrong-headed and dangerous.

In a statement posted on his office’s website, Reyes said joining other Republican attorneys general in backing the case was not about “whether prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity is good or bad policy.”

Instead, Utah’s top law enforcement officer said the amicus brief in the Harris Funeral Homes case in Michigan “makes the straightforward point that Congress — not the federal courts — should decide those types of policy questions.”

The case stems from the 2013 firing of Garden City, Mich., funeral home employee Aimee Stephens after she disclosed she was transitioning from male to female and dressed as a woman.

In their 20-page brief, participating states are urging the Supreme Court to craft a narrow definition of the word “sex” in some federal Title VII statutes, a legal position that could effectively strip federal workplace nondiscrimination laws of protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.

Reyes, a Republican, said the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had wrongly interpreted the word “sex” to mean “not just the physiological distinctions between men and women, but also a person’s personal gender identity.” That, he said, contradicts “the widespread public understanding” that Congress intended only to protect against discrimination based on biological status.

“The role of American courts is not to redefine the law,” Reyes explained. “When laws need to be amended to include a broader definition, that responsibility belongs to the appropriate legislative body, not the courts.”

GOP governors in Kentucky, Maine and Mississippi and several religious groups have also signed on to the case, which is seen by some as an assertion of states' rights to set their own discrimination policies.

The left-leaning government-reform group Alliance for a Better Utah said that Reyes’ legal position threatened to reverse federal job protections and “could result in actual harm to LGBTQ persons across our state and the nation.”

It accused Reyes of being "more interested in using his office to advance this extreme political position than protecting Utahns” and said he appeared to be rejecting a unique 2015 compromise in Utah that led Republican lawmakers to adopt landmark protections for LGBTQ residents against housing and job discrimination.

"Sean Reyes’ signature on this amicus brief is a flagrant violation of the spirit of that compromise based in inclusion and acceptance," Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah, said in a statement.

“Whether gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, every person deserves to be able to pursue a career without fear of discrimination,” Thomas said.

Reyes, in his statement, sidestepped the claim his joining the amicus brief went against the spirit of that compromise, saying only that Utah’s law “is not at risk” and that a Supreme Court ruling in the Michigan case “will not affect Utah’s housing and employment protections for the LGBTQ community.”