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U.S. Appeals Court: Businesses Cannot Arbitrarily Fire Trans People

Aimee Stephens
Aimee Stephens

The court ruled in the case of a funeral director fired after she announced her transition.

Discrimination against transgender people is sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and an employer's religious beliefs do not automatically provide an exemption from the law, a federal appeals court ruled today in finding that a funeral home company discriminated against a trans employee.

R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which operates several funeral homes in Michigan, fired funeral director Aimee Stephens in 2013 after she announced she was transitioning and would begin presenting as a woman. Her boss, Thomas Rost, told her the concept of gender transition went against his religious beliefs. "A person's sex is an immutable God-given fit," he testified at one point in the case.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on Stephens's behalf in 2014, but the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed the case in 2016, "stating that the EEOC had proven sex discrimination but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided the Funeral Home an exemption from Title VII," according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU intervened in the case after the EEOC appealed the district court's ruling, feeling that under the new president, Donald Trump, the EEOC might not be able to adequately represent Stephens.

In today's decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that not only is discrimination against trans people sex discrimination, but the federal RFRA does not provide employers an exemption from the Civil Rights Act in this case. Title VII of the act bans sex discrimination. The EEOC and Stephens should have had a chance to prove discrimination, Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the appeals court. The appellate judges found that the funeral home company had indeed discriminated against Stephens, and sent the case back to the district court "for further proceedings consistent with this opinion," Moore wrote.

The court also held that employing Stephens would not "substantially burden" Rost's practice of his religious faith. Under the federal RFRA, the government must not impose such a burden without demonstrating a compelling interest. "Simply permitting Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender that is at odds with Rost's religious beliefs is not a substantial burden under RFRA," Moore wrote, adding that "as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens's understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it."

Also, she said, Rost's argument that Stephens's female gender presentation would interfere with the funeral homes' ability to serve grieving family members "is premised on presumed biases."

ACLU senior staff attorney John Knight praised the ruling, issuing the following statement: "Today's decision is an exciting and important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country. In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced. But this ruling affirms that that is illegal, setting an important precedent confirming that transgender people are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It also ensures that employers will not be able to use their religious beliefs against trans employees, ruling that there is no 'right to discriminate' in the workplace. We are thrilled for Aimee, and for all trans folks, to be able to announce this win today."

Stephens also issued a statement through the ACLU, saying, "I pursued this case because no one should be fired from their job just for being who they are. I'm thrilled with the court's decision."

The ruling is the second in recent weeks to call for a broad interpretation of Title VII. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit did so in Zarda v. Altitude Express, involving a skydiving instructor who was fired after telling a customer he was gay. The Second Circuit held that Title VII applied to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

President Barack Obama's administration held that Title VII covered sexual orientation when there is sex stereotyping involved and gender identity in general, but the Trump administration has reversed that position. The EEOC, a federal agency that has a degree of independence, still supports the more expansive interpretation, but it's up to the courts to make the final call.

The funeral home company is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group that often argues in favor of anti-LGBT discrimination, including in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case being considered by the Supreme Court. Gary McCaleb, an attorney with the group, told the Associated Press the Sixth Circuit ruling "rewrites federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts," and said it may be appealed.

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