HARTFORD - Women-only exercise areas in gyms and fitness clubs violate a state law banning discrimination based on gender, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 6-0 decision written by Chief Justice Richard Robinson overturned a lower court ruling and an earlier decision by a state human rights official. The case involved two men who complained about women-only exercise areas at two gyms - an Edge Fitness Club in Stratford and a Club Fitness in Bloomfield.
The case drew high interest from a variety of advocacy groups that submitted briefs to the court.
Religious groups said separate workout areas are important for women whose religious beliefs bar them from exercising in front of men. Other groups, including GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, said such gender exemptions can lead to unintended consequences and have been used to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Several questions arose. Should women be protected from the ogling of men they believe are objectifying them? Do women-only workout areas discriminate against men who have to wait in line to use equipment in the general public area? Should lesbian women be barred from the women-only areas because they might objectify women?
In the ruling, Robinson wrote there is no implied customer gender privacy exception to the ban against gender-based discrimination in the state's Public Accommodation Act. The two gyms that are defendants in the case argued there was such an exception.
State law exempts bathrooms, sleeping areas and locker rooms from anti-gender-discrimination laws, but doesn't specifically mention female-only workout areas.
“A reading of (the law) to imply a gender privacy exception, although presumably to benefit women, could also negatively affect the rights of women in a different way,” Robinson wrote. “Such an exception could be invoked to exclude women based on the privacy interests of men and could justify discrimination against transgender individuals because some customers, ‘due to modesty, find it uncomfortable’ to be around such people.”
Robinson wrote that the legislature is better suited to determine where to specifically limit anti-discrimination protections, saying it's a public policy issue.
A message seeking comment was left for an attorney for Edge Fitness
Mario Borelli, a lawyer for Club Fitness, said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling. He said it was too early to say whether there will be an appeal to the federal court system.
“The court’s decision pointed to the legislature for the venue to make a decision on these types of spaces,” he said.
The two businesses argued that gyms, unlike other places such as public swimming pools and beaches, are male-dominated locations where women-only areas are needed.
Ben Klein, an attorney for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, known as GLAD, said his organization doesn't have a position on women-only workout areas, but opposes a general customer gender privacy rule that could unintentionally discriminate based on gender in other instances.
“Connecticut has spoken loudly and clearly that those types of exclusions based on sex are prohibited," he said. “We are very heartened by the decision because it actually maintains the strength of sex discrimination laws.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut argued women-only workout areas are illegal under state anti-discrimination laws.
“The gym operator has to do its level best to stop discrimination in the form of harassment,” said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “It can’t just say ‘Oh, well the solution is we’re going to make a workout space for the people who are being harassed.’”
Challenges to women-only workout areas have arisen in other states. Some lawsuits have been successful, but several states including Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have changed their gender discrimination laws to exclude fitness clubs.