Wednesday, June 07, 2023

State Law May Bar Women's Spa from Refusing to Serve Transgender Women Who Have Not Had Sex-Confirmation Surgery

In Olympus Spa v. Armstrong, (WD WA, June 5, 2023), a Washington federal district court dismissed, with leave to amend, a suit by a Korean style spa designed for women. The suit challenges Washington's public accommodation law which bars discrimination, among other things, on the basis of gender expression or identity.  Because spa patrons are required to be naked during certain spa services (massages and body scrubs), the spa refuses to serve transgender women who have not gone through post-operative sex-confirmation surgery. The spa advertises itself as welcoming "biological women." Three of the spas employees and one of its patrons are also plaintiffs in the case.  Plaintiffs claim that their requiring them to service nude males and females in the same rooms substantially burdens the exercise of their religious beliefs.  The court held however that because the public accommodation law is neutral and generally applicable, it needs to meet only rational basis review and does so because of the state's interest in ensuring equal access to public accommodation. 

The court also rejected plaintiffs' claim that their free expression rights were violated by requiring them to remove language from their website that only "biological women" are females. The court said in part:

The WLAD [Washington Law Against Discrimination] bars Olympus Spa from denying services to customers based on sexual orientation and, in this regard, it incidentally burdens Olympus Spa’s speech by prohibiting advertisement of discriminatory entrance policies (e.g., one that permits only “biological women”). But that does not convert the WLAD into a content-based regulation....

Finally, the court dismissed plaintiffs' freedom of association claims, saying in part:

The Court does not minimize the privacy concerns at play when employees are performing exfoliating massages on nude patrons. Aside from this nudity, though, there is simply nothing private about the relationship between Olympus Spa, its employees, and the random strangers who walk in the door seeking a massage. Nor is there anything selective about the association at issue beyond Olympus Spa’s “biological women” policy. The Court therefore has little difficulty concluding that the personal attachments implicated here are too attenuated to qualify for constitutional protection.