Bill to protect domestic violence shelters from discrimination claims could exclude trans people

By: - January 24, 2023 2:16 pm

A proposed Arizona law meant to protect domestic violence shelters from claims of gender discrimination could put those shelters in violation of federal law. Photo by Getty Images

A Republican bill aimed at shielding domestic violence shelters from gender discrimination claims could run afoul of federal employment law and could also be a way to exclude transgender individuals, according to critics. 

House Bill 2312 by Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, says that facilities that don’t allow biologically male employees in the presence of a woman or her children living in the facility are not liable for gender discrimination. 

Jones said that she created the bill after an unnamed Christian women’s shelter lost its federal funding, due in part to this issue, as the women at the clinic did not feel comfortable around men because of the trauma they had experienced. Jones also said that they lost funding due in part to certain values the organization held. 

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“As far as the values that they have in their mission statement, they are Christian values and things like that,” Jones said before the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday, adding that the federal government tried to make the organization “do things that were not in accordance with their mission statement.”

Jones refused to name the organization saying that she did not want them “harassed.” 

The bill faced scrutiny from the state’s largest domestic violence advocacy organization, the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, whose advocate said in committee Monday that the bill runs afoul of federal as well as state laws around employment discrimination. 

The Violence Against Women Act, initially passed in 1994, was recently reauthorized and signed by President Joe Biden disallows discrimination on the basis of sex for any program that receives VAWA funds. Additionally, the state’s standards set for service providers for sexual violence service providers also disallows discrimination on the basis of sex. 

“Allowing discrimination against biological males is a blatant attempt to allow discrimination against trans individuals as well,” Marilyn Rodriguez, speaking on behalf of the coalition said.  “This bill infers that biological males are inherently dangerous against women.” 

Rodriguez argued that “good hiring and risk management” practices would be a better alternative than what is offered in the bill and also openly wondered if it would be employers checking if a person was a biological male or not. 

Jones and one of her co-sponsors, Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said the bill is needed but did not address concerns raised by speakers. 

Jones shared the story of a relative who experienced sexual violence at a young age at the hands of the girl’s father, leading her to have post traumatic stress disorder and issues around men. 

“I couldn’t even take her to a male doctor,” Jones said, adding that at 17 the relative still has issues around men. 

Wadsack said before the committee that there are “loopholes” that need to be closed, claiming that individuals with serious mental illnesses and predatory behaviors are using transgender identities to prey on women. 

“It is not a matter of discrimination,” Wadsack said. “We have some new issues that are facing us as a society today.” 

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that there has been no evidence to support claims made around safety concerns about transgender individuals who are now facing rising violence directed at them. A study by the Harvard School of Health found that transgender teens with restricted bathroom access had a higher risk of sexual assault. 

“I think that it is just to make a point about transgender individuals and how people want to exclude transgender individuals,” Elizabeth Venable, treasurer for the Fund for Empowerment told the committee. 

“As a survivor of abuse myself I totally understand where you are coming from,” Rep. Patty Contreras, D-Phoenix, said when explaining her no vote. “We are definitely going to be in violation of federal law and we are definitely going to be in federal courts with this law.”

Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, said that being a member of the LGBTQ community himself, he didn’t want to see anyone discriminated against and echoed concerns from his Democratic colleagues that it could run afoul of federal law. 

“This is a very short bill but it has wide reaching implications so I’d like to learn more about how it works,” Gress said, adding that he was a yes vote to move the bill forward so he could learn more. 

Other lawmakers on the committee worried that the bill touched other parts of employment law and could impact not just domestic violence shelters, but Jones said it would only impact those facilities.

The bill is one of many bills that are aimed at the transgender and LGBTQ community this legislative session.

The bill passed out of committee on a 5-4 vote and will next head to the full house. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.

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