June 18, 2019 at 4:27 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Exclusive: Barr holds meeting with LGBT employees for Pride Month

U.S. Attorney General William Barr met with LGBT employees within the Justice Department. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In recognition of Pride Month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr held a closed-door meeting with LGBT attorneys and law enforcement officials who work for the U.S. Justice Department and heard about ongoing anti-LGBT workplace concerns within the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, sources familiar with the meeting told the Washington Blade exclusively.

At a time when the Supreme Court is set to determine whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers anti-LGBT discrimination, Barr also read a short statement prepared by the LGBT employees asserting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is “anathema.”

Barr’s meeting with LGBT employees stands out in the Trump administration, which is widely seen as hostile to LGBT rights.

The private meeting between Barr and DOJ Pride, the affinity group for LGBT employees at the Justice Department, took place on Thursday, June 13, according to the sources. One source said Barr initiated the meeting, although the Justice Department wouldn’t confirm as of late Tuesday.

In addition to Barr, participants in the meeting included the board of directors for DOJ Pride and DOJ Pride President Jason Lee, a trial attorney for the Consumer Protection Branch under the Civil Division, sources said.

At the meeting, Lee brought up allegations of anti-LGBT workplace hostility within the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, which DOJ Pride previously raised in a March 27 letter to Barr, as well as what the LGBT affinity group understands has happened since the time of that letter, sources say.

The March 27 letter says anti-LGBT hostility within the Justice Department has caused low morale and the flight of LGBT employees. The letter includes anonymous complaints from LGBT employees at the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Bureau of Prisons who say the workforce environment is difficult, if not impossible.

Also at the meeting, sources say Barr read a statement prepared by DOJ Pride and DOJ GEN, the affinity group for women employees, on the current litigation before the Supreme Court on Title VII, a federal law that bars discrimination based on sex in the workplace. The statement declares discrimination is “anathema” and “simply wrong.”

“Discrimination against employees or job applicants because of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity is anathema to principles of fair treatment and advancement based on merit,” says a copy of the statement shown to the Blade.

It’s unclear what commitments, if any, Barr made to LGBT employees during the meeting. It’s likely no such meeting between DOJ Pride and the U.S. attorney general took place when Jeff Sessions or Matthew Whitaker were running the show, although the Justice Department didn’t confirm that.

As reported by Buzzfeed News, Barr previously said in an April 4 letter to DOJ Pride he’d investigate claims of anti-LGBT discrimination at the FBI and Bureau of Prisons. Additionally, Barr updated the Justice Department’s EEO statement clarifying discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is prohibited within the Justice Department. (Although the attorney general is required by law to issue the EEO statement, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions never did.)

Meanwhile, litigation pending before the Supreme Court will determine whether anti-LGBT discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and, therefore, prohibited under federal civil rights laws.

Two of the cases — Boston v. Clayton County and Zarda v. Altitude Express, will determine whether anti-gay discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. Another case, EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes, will determine whether anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. A Supreme Court decision is expected by June 2020.

The Justice Department under the Trump administration has already articulated its view Title VII doesn’t cover anti-LGBT discrimination. It made that case with respect to anti-gay discrimination when the Zarda case was pending before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Similarly, the Justice Department in a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court asserted the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly concluded Title VII covers anti-trans discrimination in the Harris case.

The Pride Month meeting between Barr and LGBT employees took place about a week before DOJ Pride was scheduled to have its annual awards ceremony and reception in recognition of Pride Month. For the official ceremony this year, which is set for Wednesday, June 18, LGBT employees were set to gather in the 7th floor auditorium at the Justice Department to hear from senior leadership and watch a viewing of the 2010 PBS documentary “Stonewall Uprising.” At a later reception, DOJ Pride will give awards to D.C.-based transgender activist Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, and David Cotton-Zinn, a member of the FBI’s Victim Services Response Team.

During Barr’s confirmation process, LGBT advocacy groups opposed Senate approval of his nomination based on his record as U.S. attorney general under George H.W. Bush and designation as a Trump appointee. One longtime gay friend of Barr’s, former Time Warner general counsel Paul Cappuccio, came to his defense and told the Blade, “He’s not going to ever let people be discriminated against, OK?”

In his confirmation hearing, Barr suggested he’d uphold religious freedom at the expense of LGBT rights and continue the view LGBT people aren’t protected under Title VII. At the same time, Barr said he’d have “zero tolerance” for hate crimes, including those committed against LGBT people.

Since Barr took over at the Justice Department, the Trump administration has continued to defend in court the transgender military ban. It remains to be seen whether the Justice Department will reverse its litigation position regarding Title VII now that the issue is before the Supreme Court, but that seems unlikely.

The Justice Department deferred comment on the meeting with DOJ Pride, which provided background information on the discussion.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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