Thursday, March 08, 2018

6th Circuit: Funeral Home Violated Title VII By Firing Transgender Employee

In EEOC v. R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., (6th Cir., March 7, 2018), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a Title VII religious discrimination suit against a Michigan funeral home that fired Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee (funeral director/embalmer) who was in the process of transitioning from male to female. In a 49-page opinion, the court held first that Stephens was illegally fired because of her failure to conform to sex stereotypes.  The funeral home owner decided to fire Stephens "because Stephens was 'no longer going to represent himself as a man' and 'wanted to dress as a woman'."

The court also held that:
discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status violates Title VII.
Moving to defenses raised by the funeral home, including its defense under RFRA which the district court had relied upon, the court held:
the Funeral Home does not qualify for the ministerial exception to Title VII; the Funeral Home’s religious exercise would not be substantially burdened by continuing to employ Stephens without discriminating against her on the basis of sex stereotypes; the EEOC has established that it has a compelling interest in ensuring the Funeral Home complies with Title VII; and enforcement of Title VII is necessarily the least restrictive way to achieve that compelling interest.
Explaining its rejection of defendant's claim of a substantial burden under RFRA, the court said in part:
...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. We presume that the “line [Rost] draw[s]”—namely, that permitting Stephens to represent herself as a woman would cause him to “violate God’s commands” because it would make him “directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift,” ... —constitutes “an honest conviction.”...  But we hold that, as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens’s understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.
Slate reports on the decision. [Thanks to Steven H. Sholk and Tom Rutledge for the lead.]