TLDEF Condemns Federal Court Ruling in Favor of Michigan Funeral Home that Fired Employee for Being Transgender

August 18, 2016 - The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) condemns a Federal Court ruling in favor of a Garden City, Michigan funeral home that fired an employee for being transgender. The court ruled that the funeral home did not violate the federal civil rights law when it terminated Amiee Stephens, a woman who asked to dress in women's business attire on the job. According to the court, the funeral home’s actions were excusable because the funeral home owner expressed a sincere religious belief and the federal government was therefore not entitled to challenge its actions. The decision in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes was announced today.

The funeral home director stated that he believed that he "would be violating God's commands" if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home's funeral directors "to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the Funeral Home]." In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox reasoned that, although Title VII prohibits sex discrimination against transgender persons, the funeral home was immunized in this case because it had raised a religious belief defense against a lawsuit filed by the federal government. As per Judge Cox: "The court finds that the funeral home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs."

TLDEF Executive Director Jillian Weiss characterized the ruling as follows:  "This decision is a setback for transgender rights and sends a chilling message about the implications of the Hobby Lobby case, which exempts closely-held companies from laws if they have a religious objection. The ruling contradicts years of court precedents protecting transgender individuals under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Weiss also points out that the decision reflects the fact that—even with increased federal government litigation seeking to secure the rights of transgender persons nationwide—there continues to be a vital need for transgender persons to litigate their own cases.

As per Weiss, “Judge Cox noted that if Ms. Stephens had brought her own case against the funeral home, the funeral home would not have been able to raise a religious belief defense. At the end of the day this means that, until Hobby Lobby is overturned, it will be important for both the federal government and private citizens to file transgender discrimination cases so that religious belief defenses cannot be used to kick aggrieved transgender persons out of court.”

“In ruling that an employer can force its employee to wear ‘gender neutral’ clothing because of the employer's religious beliefs, the federal court has ignored both Supreme Court and appeals court rulings that correctly understand gender discrimination to be an illegal form of sex discrimination.”

“We cannot go back to the days in which people could be forced to conform to employer’s gender stereotypes in order to keep their jobs. This ruling shows the dangers inherent in so-called religious exemptions that create enormous loopholes,  threatening equality laws that protect vulnerable people. We hope this decision is overturned on appeal.”