Friday, August 19, 2016

RFRA Protects Funeral Home's Gender Stereotyping of Transgender Employee

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., (ED MI, Aug. 18, 2016), a Michigan federal district court upheld a funeral home's defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a charge by the EEOC that the funeral home engaged in gender stereotyping when it dismissed a transgender employee (funeral director/embalmer) who was in the process of transitioning from male to female. In a previous opinion in the case, the court held that Title VII does not bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  However the court permitted the EEOC to proceed on the theory that the employee was dismissed for refusing to comply with the funeral home's dress code for male employees.  Citing Hobby Lobby, the court held that the funeral home can assert religious rights under RFRA. The court then said:
Rost [the funeral home's owner] believes “that the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female.”... He believes that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.”... Rost believes 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]. This would violate God’s commands because, among other reasons, [Rost] would be directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.” ...
The court went on to say that even if the government has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination, it has not chosen the least restrictive means of doing so.  It explained:
If the EEOC truly has a compelling governmental interest in ensuring that Stephens is not subject to gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of required clothing at the Funeral Home, couldn’t the EEOC propose a gender-neutral dress code (dark-colored suit, consisting of a matching business jacket and pants, but without a neck tie) as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here?
Detroit News reports on the decision. [Thanks to Jeff Pasek for the lead.]