WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department reversed an Obama-era federal policy barring discrimination against transgender people in the workplace — a move civil rights advocates charged as part of systematic Trump administration efforts to roll back protections for LGBT Americans.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the policy, which included transgender employees under the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination, did not adhere to the letter of the law.
“Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se,” Sessions wrote in a memo to federal prosecutors, referencing the section of the civil rights law that bars workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.
“This is a conclusion of law, not policy. As a law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice must interpret Title VII as written by Congress,” Sessions wrote.
Critics of the move point out that federal courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have granted protections to transgender workers under Title VII’s sex bias prohibition.
An EEOC spokeswoman confirmed that the Justice Department notified the commission of the change and that it is reviewing the matter, but would not comment on whether it would affect that agency’s policy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide if Title VII’s sex discrimination ban extends to gender identity.
No other federal law explicitly prohibits workplace discrimination against transgender people.
Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in a statement that the policy was reversed because it went beyond the language of the law.
“Unfortunately, the last administration abandoned that fundamental principle, which necessitated today’s action,” he said in a statement yesterday.
Still, advocates worry that the administration is engaging in an effort across government agencies and even the federal courts to target LGBT individuals. Yesterday, the administration asked a federal court in Washington to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a policy barring transgender military personnel, a move President Donald Trump announced on Twitter in July.
“Now more than ever we need our courts to protect all LGBTQ rights,” said Dan Goldberg, legal director at Alliance For Justice. “The Trump administration and this Justice Department repeatedly makes clear that they are committed to attacking LGBTQ rights, and he has repeatedly put up for lifetime appointments federal judicial nominees who, if they are confirmed, are committed to turn back the clock.”