Court Ruling in Transgender Discrimination Case Sets Dangerous Precedent

By |2018-01-15T22:20:52-05:00August 25th, 2016|Michigan, News|

U.S. District Judge Sean Cox ruled on Aug. 18 that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home’s Owner Thomas Rost did not discriminate against Aimee Stephens, formerly Anthony Stephens, when he fired her.
In his ruling, Cox wrote that requiring the funeral home to do something it was religiously opposed to because of discrimination laws “would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs…under the unique facts and circumstances of this case, the funeral home is entitled to a RFRA exemption from Title VII (and the sex stereotyping body of case law under it).”
This decision, according to ACLU LGBT Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan represents the “dangerous slippery slope that people feared regarding the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision that an individual employer can use his or her individual religious beliefs as justification for discrimination.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group, issued a statement applauding the ruling. Attorney Douglas Wardlow said, “The feds shouldn’t strong-arm private business owners into violating their religious beliefs, and the court has affirmed that here.”
Yet the facts in this case, Kaplan said, “demonstrated that the Harris funeral home was not a religiously affiliated home, served all denominations and is open to anyone in the public, and yet because of the owner’s professed individual religious beliefs, he can both willfully violate civil rights laws and such civil rights laws cannot be enforced.”
Stephens was employed since 2007. Her termination came two weeks after she wrote her employer a letter informing them about her transition from male to female, and explaining that she intended to dress in appropriate business attire as a woman. The funeral home’s owner, Thomas Rost, responded by handing Stephens a severance agreement telling her that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable. Rost’s testimony confirmed that Stephens was fired because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.”
The court concluded in April 2015 that the EEOC had properly alleged a sex discrimination claim asserting that Stephens was fired for failing to conform to Rost’s sex-or gender-based stereotypes. The funeral home then amended its answer to raise defenses under the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA.
“This is a reckless ruling against a woman who was fired simply because she is transgender,” said Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “Judge Cox’s deeply disappointing decision has the possibility of setting an incredibly dangerous precedent that purported religious beliefs can be used as an excuse to violate non-discrimination laws. It has the potential of opening a Pandora’s box of discrimination against a wide range of vulnerable communities. We are incredibly concerned about the implications.”
This is one of the EEOC’s first lawsuits on behalf of a transgender employee. Spokeswoman for the commission, Christine Nazer said, “We are disappointed with the decision and reviewing our next steps.”
Kaplan said he hopes those next steps are an appeal of this decision to the 6th Circuit Court.
“The implications of allowing this broad RFRA exemption in this case are staggering. People do hold sincerely held religious beliefs about many things and those beliefs are protected by the constitution,” he said. “However, if religious motivation exempts businesses from anti-discrimination laws, our government would be powerless to enforce laws to protect all Americans against the harms of discrimination.”
This mean business owners could refuse service to people of color, on the grounds that religious beliefs forbid racial integration. Employers could refuse to hire women or pay them less than men, because their religious beliefs require women to remain at home. Colleges and universities receiving federal funds could impose religiously motivated racial segregation policies.
“All civil rights laws would be subject to this challenge that the discrimination was motivated by religion,” he said. “This kind of challenge, this claim has no foundation in our laws and our constitution.”

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.