Federal court upholds firing of transgender funeral director
In a decision that favored religious freedom over transgender rights in the workplace, a federal judge ruled today that a metro Detroit funeral home did not discriminate against an employee when it fired her for transitioning from a man into a woman.
That’s because transgender individuals are not a protected class under federal employment laws, the judge ruled, and the funeral home can’t be forced to make employment decisions that go against its sincerely held religious beliefs.
In this case, the funeral home owner believed that a person’s sex is a “God-given gift,” and that the government can’t force him to abandon that belief.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox agreed.
“The funeral home’s owner admits that he fired (the employee) because (the employee) intended to ‘dress as a woman’ while at work,” Cox wrote in his ruling. But, he added, forcing the funeral home owner to do otherwise “would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Moreover, Cox stressed: “Significantly, neither transgender status nor gender identity are protected classes under Title VII.”
The case involves Aimee Stephens, formerly Anthony Stephens, a funeral director who was fired in 2013 from her job at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City after disclosing her decision to transition from a man into a woman. During her six years of working at the funeral home, she hid her female appearance, but decided in 2013 to go public with the truth, in a letter to her employer.
“Dear Friends and Co-workers, I have known many of you for some time now, and I count you all as my friends,” Stephens wrote in the letter on file in U.S. District Court. “What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster. I am writing this both to inform you of a significant change in my life and to ask for your patience, understanding and support, which I would treasure greatly.”
“I have a gender identity disorder that I have struggled with my entire life. … I have felt imprisoned in my body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness. …. I cannot begin to describe the shame and suffering that I have lived with. Toward that end, I intend to have sex reassignment surgery.”
Two weeks later, Stephens was fired.
ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan, who initially interceded on her behalf, believes it was discrimination disguised as a religious view. And Cox’s decision, he said, will only allow more such workplace discrimination to take place.
“This case represents the dangerous slippery slope. Any individual employer can cite their own religious beliefs to discriminate,” Kaplan said, noting the funeral home is not a religious organization, but strictly a business. “It’s not a religious funeral home. It serves all denominations, and yet because the owner professed a particular viewpoint toward transgender people, he can willfully violate civil rights laws? … It’s a highly flawed decision. … This is now open season to justify discrimination by individuals and businesses against various groups of people.”
Doug Wardlow, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom group, which defended the funeral home, believes Cox made the right decision.
“It’s a big victory for religious freedom,” Wardlow said. “The government doesn’t have the ability to force business owners to violate their religious beliefs about human sexuality, or anything else for that matter.”
At issue in the funeral case, Wardlow said, was that Stephens wanted to dress like a woman at work.
“The funeral home would have had no problem if Stephens wanted to dress that way on his own time. The problem was that he wanted to dress as a member of the opposite sex while at work … on company time, and present himself in a way that contradicts (the owner’s) religious beliefs.”
The Stephens case made history two years ago as it marked the first time the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission challenged discrimination against transgender employees under the Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion. The EEOC filed the Stephens lawsuit on the same day it filed a similar case in Florida, where an eye clinic was sued for firing a transgender employee. In that case, the employer settled with the employee for $150,000 and agreed to implement a gender discrimination policy and provide training to its management and employees regarding transgender discrimination.
In the funeral home case, the EEOC investigated and concluded that the funeral home wrongfully fired Stephens because she is transgender, transitioned from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the funeral home’s sex or gender-based “preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”
All of this, the EEOC claims, is prohibited under federal employment laws.
“Title VII prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer’s stereotypes of how men and women should act, and this includes employees who present themselves according to their gender identity,” EEOC attorney Laurie Young previously argued:
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