John Bel Edwards, Jeff Landry debate whether transgender state workers should be protected
Before the end of December, a Baton Rouge judge is expected to decide whether the Louisiana government will continue to prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and contractors in the workplace (NOLA.com).
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry‘s legal teams spent hours Tuesday (Nov. 29) in a courtroom arguing over whether transgender employees and contractors, specifically, should be shielded from firing or harassment at work (NOLA.com).
Landry has refused to sign off on anywhere from 50 to 100 state legal contracts that include LGBT workplace protections, slowing down state government operations. The Edwards administration won’t approve a few of Landry’s outside contracts for legal work in turn, since they don’t include an LGBT nondiscrimination clause (NOLA.com).
Louisiana’s two top elected officials have been feuding for months over LGBT rights. After being unable to work out the dispute themselves, they have turned to the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge to settle the matter. Judge Todd Hernandez is expected to issue a ruling in the case by the middle of December (NOLA.com).
Landry is asking the court to throw out Edwards’ executive order that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people in state government. He says the governor has overstepped his bounds by imposing the LGBT workplace protections on all of the agencies (NOLA.com).
Edwards, in turn, insists the attorney general is the one who has overreached. The governor is asking the court not only to uphold the executive order but also to impose more limited authority on Landry, so he can’t block state contracts in the future (NOLA.com).
But while both Edwards and Landry insisted the courtroom showdown was about executive power and constitutional authority — who has control over what part of state government — they spent most of their time and energy arguing over the merit of workplace protections for transgender people (NOLA.com).
Two of Landry’s half dozen witnesses spoke directly to the complications transgender rights might pose in an office setting. None of the witnesses’ testimony ever addressed the constitutional authority of the attorney general verses the governor (NOLA.com).
Instead, Landry’s witnesses mostly commented on the inconvenience that could occur by protecting transgender people from discrimination. They said there would be confusion over which bathrooms transgender people would use and what pronouns would apply to them in the office. One witness even complained that there could be confusion over state employee uniforms and transgender people (NOLA.com).
“It’s really unnatural in a lot of ways,” said Douglas Sunseri, a Metairie attorney who has represented a number of small businesses in disputes with employees. He was brought in as an expert on employment discrimination by the attorney general’s legal team (NOLA.com).
Sunseri said it was hard to define what Edwards meant when he prohibited discrimination against people based on their “gender identity” in the executive order. He said it was hard to define what “gender identity” — which is typically used to refer to transgender people – meant (NOLA.com).
“Is it dress? Is it an attitude? Is it thought? I don’t know,” Sunseri told the court (NOLA.com).
Yet the Edwards administration said Landry and his agency are the only ones who are confused about the transgender protections. They have been the only ones to complain about the LGBT executive order since it was announced in the spring, according to Edwards officials (NOLA.com).
“I have not heard of any objections from either agencies — besides the Department of Justice — or vendors,” said Scott Johnson, who serves as general counsel to the Louisiana Division of Administration, which oversees state contracts (NOLA.com).
It is also not clear how broad Landry’s complaint about the LGBT protections might be. In court Tuesday, his legal team said he only has concerns about the provisions that apply to transgender people, not the protections for gay people and same-sex couples (NOLA.com).
At one point, they implied that if the governor’s protections had been limited to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, the two might not have landed in court. “This whole case is about gender identity, not sexual orientation,” said Chester Cedars, a lawyer for the Department of Justice who spoke for Landry Tuesday (NOLA.com).
The governor’s team was skeptical of that claim however. They said Landry filed the lawsuit against the governor to get the entire LGBT executive order thrown out, not just the part that applied to transgender people. Landry has also resisted including protections for the gay community in his own agency and state contracts, signaling he isn’t interested in a more restricted policy (NOLA.com).
“If you read over their pleadings, they want the whole thing dismissed,” said Matthew Block, general counsel for the governor’s office (NOLA.com).
Block also argued that Landry’s objections to the state’s LGBT protections are moot in a few cases. Contractors who work with the federal government have to abide by a similar LGBT executive order issued by President Barack Obama already. In some cases, Landry has approved state contracts that include references to Obama’s executive order and that already protect LGBT people (NOLA.com).
“They are promising to abide by a federal executive order that says the exact same thing,” Block said (NOLA.com).
The difficult relationship between Edwards and Landry was on display throughout the courtroom hearing (NOLA.com).
At one point, Landry’s legal team complained that the governor was withholding $18 million in funding from the attorney general because he was refusing to comply with the LGBT executive order. Block said the money hasn’t been transferred to Landry because technically he won’t sign the contract attached to the funds, which contain LGBT protections (NOLA.com).
Time is running short for the governor and attorney general’s showdown. The fight has spilled over to the relationship between the legislators and the governor and has put state employees’ health insurance in jeopardy (NOLA.com).
State lawmakers rejected a state employee health benefits contract a couple of weeks ago because it required a health insurance company to prohibit LGBT discrimination. Legislators said they want to know whether the court will uphold the governor’s LGBT executive order before they consider the contract again. If they don’t approve it soon, it would endanger health insurance benefits for about 10,000 state employees. The health insurance company can’t get paid until the contract is approved (NOLA.com).
But even if the court does side with Edwards and reinforce the LGBT protections, lawmakers may still insist the LGBT protections come out of the health insurance agreement. State Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, was a witness at Tuesday’s hearing. He said he would have a hard time approving the state health insurance contract with LGBT protections, regardless of the judge’s ruling on the governor’s executive power (NOLA.com).
“If it’s in the form it is in now, it would be very difficult for me,” to approve the health insurance arrangement, Henry told the judge (NOLA.com).
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