Court rules against funeral home that fired employee for being transgender

A federal court has rejected a funeral home’s claim that it was legal to fire a transgender employee because of ‘religious freedom’.

The case revolves around Aimee Stephens, who worked for seven years at Michigan’s R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes – before getting sacked when she came out as trans.

Stephens complained to the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the treatment, but her former employer opted to fight the issue through the courts, arguing that it is not illegal to discriminate against transgender people.

The employer, Thomas Rost, had contended that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory treatment, does not cover people who are transgender.

Rost, who was provided free legal representation by anti-LGBT evangelical law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, also claimed that his actions were protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 US law that bolstered protections for people based on ‘freedom of religion’.

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Although transgender people are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible and Jesus preaches against discrimination, Rost had told the court his transphobic actions were protected because he “sincerely believes that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift”, and 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 organization”.

But the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit this week rejected his claims and found in favour of Stephens and the EEOC.

On behalf of the court, Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote: “Discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII.

“The unrefuted facts show that the Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex, and therefore the EEOC is entitled to summary judgment as
to its unlawful-termination claim.”

Of his claim to be protected by ‘religious freedom’ laws, the judge wrote: “Rost proclaims ‘that God has called him to serve grieving people’ and ‘that his purpose in life is to minister to the grieving’.

“[However] the Funeral Home is not affiliated with a church; it does not claim to have a religious purpose in its articles of incorporation; it is open every day, including Christian holidays; and it serves clients of all faiths.”

The judge added: “RFRA provides the Funeral Home with no relief because continuing to employ Stephens would not, as a matter of law, substantially burden Rost’s religious exercise, and even if it did, the EEOC has shown that enforcing Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.”

The court then quashed a previous ruling on the issue, and found in favour of the unlawful termination claim.