Religious Law

Religious freedom law doesn't shield funeral home that fired transgender worker, 6th Circuit says

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A federal appeals court has ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects a funeral home director who was fired after disclosing that she was transitioning from male to female.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Michigan funeral home was not shielded by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Reuters and BuzzFeed News covered the March 7 decision; a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union is here.

The court sided with Aimee Stephens in her suit against R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which operates three funeral homes in Michigan. The company owner, Thomas Rost, had claimed that requiring him to keep Stephens on staff would be an unjustified substantial burden on his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Rost says God has called him to minister to grieving people, and the funeral home website says its highest priority is to honor God. He also says the Bible teaches “that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift” and he would be violating God’s commandments to permit funeral directors to deny their sex, the opinion says.

The appeals court said Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination protected Stephens, and permitting her to represent herself as a woman did not substantially burden Rost’s religious beliefs. “Tolerating Stephens’s understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it,” the appeals court said.

Nor does compliance with Title VII amount to an endorsement of Stephens’ views, the appeals court said. “The fact that Rost sincerely believes that he is being compelled to make such an endorsement does not make it so,” the court said

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had initially filed the lawsuit, but Stephens later joined the suit because she feared policy changes in the U.S. government might prevent the EEOC from representing her interests. She was represented by the ACLU.

The case is the first to consider an employer’s RFRA defense in a suit alleging transgender discrimination, according to Reuters and BuzzFeed News.

“The significance of this decision is hard to overstate,” said Lambda Legal lawyer Sharon McGowan in an email to BuzzFeed News.

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