Connecticut High Court To Decide If Women-Only Workout Area Violates State Anti-Discrimination Law

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  On May 7, 2021, the Connecticut Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities (CHRO) v. Edge Fitness, LLC, et al., SC 20538 (Conn.).  The case presents an issue of first impression and arises out of the State of Connecticut’s claim that a separate women-only workout area maintained by Edge Fitness violates the state’s public accommodations statute, CGS 46a-64.

Connecticut’s CGS 46a-64 prohibits businesses (and others) from discriminating, segregating, or denying anyone full and equal accommodations in any place of public accommodation because of their sex, gender identity, race, color, age, national origin, or any other group identified in the statute.

Since approximately 2014, Edge Fitness has offered a “women only” workout area (WOA) in its clubs. The purpose of the WOAs is to give female members the option of working out in a private, female-only area where they can be more comfortable, less self-conscious, and more able to enjoy the experience of exercising.

At the public hearing of this matter, University of Connecticut Professor Diane Quinn, PhD, testified about the psychological concepts of sexual objectification and self-objectification many women experience when exercising in the presence of men. In her opinion, the objectification that women experience in places like exercise clubs can lead to body shame and self-consciousness, impeding women’s athletic performance and discouraging them from exercising. The WOA is a way of addressing those issues. Dr. Quinn also testified that men and women are not the same in this regard and that men do not experience sexual objectification or self-objectification to the degree, or in the same way, that women do.

In 2016, the WOA was challenged by a male former gym member on the grounds that it violated Connecticut’s public accommodation anti-discrimination statute because it discriminated against men. Edge Fitness received favorable rulings before the Office of Public Hearings and the Superior Court. In July 2020, Superior Court Judge John Cordani held that the WOA does not violate the state’s public accommodations law. He concluded, “[T]he uncontroverted evidence in the record, which is supported by common experience, is that if the women only work out areas were eliminated, and women were deprived of the choice to exercise without men present, women would suffer from sexual objectification, extreme embarrassment, anxiety, stress, and many would choose not to exercise in public accommodations.”

The CHRO appealed again and the Supreme Court selected the case for an immediate review. Amicus briefs were filed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, and approximately a dozen other religious organizations in support of Edge Fitness and the WOA. The ACLU, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, and the Quinnipiac University School of Law Legal Clinic filed amicus briefs on behalf of the state.

The case has been litigated by James Shea and Allison Dearington of Jackson Lewis’ Hartford office.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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