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Discriminatory Intent: How the Civil Rights Act Reinforces Sexual Inequality

July 20, 2016
Government funding comes at a price. In order to receive qualified federal funding, an entity must make a choice between the juicy prospects of government dollars and the burden of self-policing for any unequal treatment within its ranks.

 By Paul Quincy, JD’18

A significant amount of money goes into federal loans, grants, and contracts, which is a virtual necessity for any service provider that wants to remain competitive with small business searching for any leg up. In order for these companies to have access to the world of federal aid, they must also opt into a barrage of federal regulations forbidding unequal treatment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. These regulations are modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (“CRA”), easily one of the most important bills ever advanced through Congress and into American law, broadly prohibiting discrimination against protected classes.

Well, mostly prohibiting.

The model seems pretty flawless on its face, right? It doesn’t reach into private businesses to say whom to hire or how to operate; the Fed only dictates equal treatment policies to those who opt in. Essentially, the government won’t help out those who discriminate, but the funding isn’t a way of policing small businesses that can’t stand the scrutiny. But what happens when you dig a little deeper? Although religious organizations have numerous other protections, would this model mean that a Catholic school can’t hire only nuns when it receives qualified funding?

The CRA and funding stipulations modelled off from it have an exception built into them. This loophole is called the bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Through a BFOQ claim, an employer can discriminate in hiring if it can show that the position inherently requires a certain religion, sex, or national origin. (Note, however, that a BFOQ cannot be based on race or color, since early constitutional interpretation had already held that those are simply not an acceptable basis for discrimination.) BFOQs exempt federally funded employers which have a real functional need for hiring employees with specific characteristics.

In Dothard v. Rawlinson, the Supreme Court first upheld BFOQs as applied to an Alabama state prison that hired only male correctional officers. The Court accepted the prison’s argument that it couldn’t hire female guards, given the high risk of sexual assault by male prisoners.[1] Dothard stated the CRA was a sweeping reform, outlawing as much discrimination as Congress could constitutionally reach. Therefore courts may only apply the exception extremely narrowly.

BFOQs also protect businesses which hire only a certain gender to protect customer privacy. For example, a nursing home with about 75% female patients could legally search only for female applicants for its nursing positions. The court noted that nurses’ duties necessarily included physically dependent patients during intimate cleaning.[2] It’s easy to understand the objections of an elderly, disabled woman who has to expose herself on a regular basis to a male stranger. Once the court recognized the right of female patients to lawfully object to intimate cross-sex touching, the nursing home could not function properly with equal opportunity hiring. Without the BFOQ exception, small businesses like the nursing home would have to choose between meeting the standards for funding and providing a necessary customer service.

But the sex-based BFOQ also raises a significant number of critiques. Opponents feel that its mere existence acknowledges, empowers, and enforces negative gender-based stereotypes.

One concern is the policy implications of allowing any exception to equal treatment in employment. In Moteles v. University of Pennsylvania, a court held that our own beloved Penn could always keep a female campus security officer on the less desirable graveyard shift. While acknowledging that this treatment was based solely on the officer’s gender, the court held that it could be necessary for a female officer to be available at all times to protect female students. The court reasoned that a female presence could be vital to treating female victims of sexual assault.[3]Therefore, Penn could put employees in unequal positions to look out for its own clients/student, in spite of the anti-discrimination laws on the books. While the BFOQ exemption helps employers avoid choosing between funding and necessary client services, it also allows them to treat employees worse because of their gender.

The most powerful policy critique claims that BFOQs enforce inherently sexist and heteronormative stereotypes, and normalizes them in society and the workplace. They allow client prejudice to dictate someone’s livelihood- a concerned female patient could dictate a male nurse’s job prospects because she believes males are incapable of providing treatment without sexually assaulting her. BFOQs treat sexual attraction as something that can only be felt towards a person of the opposite sex- a showering female inmate is only safe being supervised by a female correctional officer because the court believed only males could have inappropriate sexual thoughts about a female. Alternately, BFOQs contain deep layers of judicial paternalism- Dothard’s all-male Supreme Court held that a male prison warden was responsible for determining what risks a female job applicant could take in her life.

The BFOQ exception is fraught with competing considerations. Does it advance civil rights or does it ossify old discrimination in the name of client service? On one side is the patient exposing herself to a stranger despite her fundamental human interest in avoiding forced nudity? On the other hand, even a narrow exception to anti-discrimination requirements creates the possibility of government-funded discriminatory practices. The BFOQ exception is based on outdated stereotypes of gender and sexual orientation. Either way, it seems clear that the BFOQ represents a congressional concession to those few employers who are caught between the carrot of federal money and the stick of necessarily losing the ability to serve customers.

 

[1] Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321 (1977).

[2] Fesel v. Masonic Home of Del., 447 F. Supp. 1346 (D. Del. 1978).

[3] Moteles v. U. Pa., 730 F.2d 913 (3rd Cir. 1984).

 

  [1] Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321 (1977).

 

  [2] Fesel v. Masonic Home of Del., 447 F. Supp. 1346 (D. Del. 1978).

 

  [3] Moteles v. U. Pa., 730 F.2d 913 (3rd Cir. 1984).

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