The general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was fired by the Biden administration this Friday, Bloomberg Law reports.
Sharon Gustafson, who oversaw the commission’s litigation over workplace discrimination on issues like race, religion and sex, was notified of her dismissal through a letter after she refused to step down. According to Republican EEOC Commissioner Andrea R. Lucas, Gustafson’s firing was “deeply troubling” and an “injection of partisanship where it had been absent.”
The Trump administration urged courts to overturn the EEOC’s interpretation of civil rights law, saying that discrimination based on sexual orientation should not be included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Confirmed by Senate in 2019, Gustafson came under fire from LGBT rights and feminist groups during her confirmation hearing, who say she gave “evasive” answers about the rights of LGBT workers.
“Her evasiveness suggests that she is unwilling or reluctant to preserve the EEOC’s critical mission of defending LGBT people’s well-established legal rights, and her refusal to commit to enforcing the law or recognize legal rights that protect the livelihood of millions of Americans is cause for significant concern,” several human rights advocates wrote in 2018 in a letter addressed to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA).
“One of the issues she made as her hallmark, was the issue of discrimination against religious minorities, the law requiring religious accommodation of beliefs,” said David Lopez, who was general counsel of the EEOC under President Barack Obama. “Some lawyers from the conservative Christian right view this right as a conflict with requiring nondiscrimination against LGBTQ people.”
But according to Gustafson, her stance on religious anti-discrimination is not in conflict with LGBT rights.
“An employee has the right to be free from discrimination based on his or her religious faith, including beliefs, observances, and practices, which an employer must accommodate unless such accommodation causes undue hardship to the employer. At the same time, an employee has the right to be free from discrimination based on his or her sex, including sexual orientation and transgender status,” she said. “In the statutes enforced by the EEOC, none of these rights supercedes the other, and these rights generally do not conflict. On those exceptional occasions where workplace rights may be in tension with each other, the EEOC should lead the way in thinking through legally-appropriate resolutions. Resolving tensions or conflicts is one of the purposes of law. This is nothing new.”
Responding to criticisms that say Biden violated norms by firing Gustafson before her term was up, Lopez said that at the end of the day, “you serve at the pleasure of the president.”
“I think the norm that was violated was that she decided to stay. I’ve never heard of that happening before,” Lopez said.
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