A federal judge in California has ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation falls under the purview of the landmark Title IX law, giving a broader interpretation to the 1972 statute that prohibits sex discrimination in the nation's schools and colleges.
In his 22-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not a separate category of discrimination, but rather, such claims fall under Title IX's view of discrimination on the basis of gender or sex.
The ruling allows two former players on the Pepperdine University women's basketball team to proceed with a lawsuit that alleges the university harassed and discriminated against them because they were dating. Haley Videckis and Layana White said that the coach wanted them off the team because their lesbian relationship "would cause the team to lose games," the complaint alleged.
Seeking to dismiss parts of the women's lawsuit, Pepperdine argued in court papers that Title IX does not cover claims based on sexual orientation and that their allegations failed to meet the law's standard for gender stereotype discrimination.
Pregerson, however, disagreed, and said the women could pursue their suit because the alleged maltreatment turned on the nature of each individual's sex in the same-sex relationship.
"Plaintiffs allege that they were told that 'lesbianism' would not be tolerated on the team," Pregerson wrote. "If plaintiffs had been males dating females, instead of females dating females, they would not have been subjected to the alleged different treatment," he said, concluding that the pair have a "straightforward claim of sex discrimination."
Videckis and White, who left Pepperdine last year, had said team staffers questioned them about their sexual orientation, sought access to their gynecological records and refused to process White's NCAA appeal to play in the 2014 season, according to the complaint. White had transferred to the Malibu-based college from the University of Arizona.
In court papers, attorneys for Pepperdine countered that "the alleged intrusion" into the women's personal lives was untrue, and that the coach's questions stemmed from a desire to improve team dynamics. Any negative statements made about the effect of two women dating while playing on the same team were part of a call for unity and a desire to end off-court distractions, attorneys for Pepperdine wrote in court papers.
Citing nearly four decades of jurisprudence, Pepperdine's attorneys asserted that Title IX did not apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
Pregerson had previously sided with Pepperdine and dismissed the claims made by Videckis and White under Title IX, writing that the line between gender stereotype and sexual orientation discrimination was "blurry, at best." He allowed the women to amend their lawsuit.
In this ruling, issued Dec. 15, Pregerson said he reversed his earlier decision because he found himself unable to distinguish sexual orientation from sex and gender discrimination.
"Simply put, the line between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination is 'difficult to draw' because that line does not exist, save as a lingering and faulty judicial construct," Pregerson wrote.
He also faulted reasoning that focuses too much on the sexual orientation of the alleged victim, which he found to be irrelevant: "It is the biased mind of the alleged discriminator that is the focus of the analysis."
Doug NeJaime, faculty director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, said that the ruling is among the first to apply Title IX to sexual orientation discrimination, drawing on evolving views of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In a landmark decision this summer, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination because such allegations "necessarily state a claim of discrimination on the basis of sex." Pregerson cited that analysis.
"In light of there being no federal anti-discrimination law for sexual orientation, it's potentially a quite significant ruling," NeJaime said. "We'll start to see whether other federal courts start to do this and see whether they're applying the EEOC's logic."