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10 March 2018, 12:59 | Kara Nash
Court rules against funeral home that fired employee for being transgender
Aimee Stephens informed her employer and co-workers around July 31, 2013, at Detroit-based R.G.
She was sacked about two weeks later, with the company's owner stating that "what she was proposing to do" was unacceptable, according to the ruling.
But the EEOC's complaint also asserts Ms. Stephens was sacked because she did not conform to "sex- or-gender-based preferences, expectations or stereotypes", said the District Court ruling.
Expand | Collapse (Photo: RG&GR Harris Funeral Homes) Tom Rost, president and owner of the R.G. "That's exactly what was experienced by Amy Stephens in this case".
Rost told the court 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 his funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization.
The decision remands the case back to trial court, which concluded the funeral home did have leeway to terminate Stephens under RFRA, a 1993 law meant to protect religious minorities that requires the federal government to take the least restrictive path when infringing upon religious liberty.
The ruling, ACLU attorney John Knight argued, ensured "that employers will not be able to use their religious beliefs against trans employees, ruling that there is no "right to discriminate" in the workplace". She was represented by the ACLU.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had initially filed the lawsuit, but Stephens later joined the suit because she feared policy changes in the US government might prevent the EEOC from representing her interests. If they objected to these actions, they could be fired at will.
"A lot of people are breathing a sigh of relief" after seeing that part of the court's decision, Gregory Nevins, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc.in Atlanta, told Bloomberg Law.
"American business owners, especially those serving the grieving and the vulnerable, should be free to live and work consistently with their faith", said ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb.
"[However] the Funeral Home is not affiliated with a church; it does not claim to have a religious goal in its articles of incorporation; it is open every day, including Christian holidays; and it serves clients of all faiths".
"Today's decision misreads court precedents that have long protected businesses which properly differentiate between men and women in their dress and grooming code policies", he added.
Discrimination against a worker based on gender identity or because the person is transitioning between genders is sex discrimination that violates existing federal law, a federal appeals court held in a landmark ruling.
The court reversed [text, PDF] the district court's grant of summary judgment, finding the funeral home in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act [text] for unlawful termination. In a written statement, he said the Sixth Circuit opinion "re-writes federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts". "We are consulting with our client to consider their options for appeal".
The dress code, according to the appeals ruling, required men to wear suits and ties and women to wear skirts and business jackets. During the EEOC's investigation, it also found discrimination in the clothing allowance for men and women. After informing [funeral home owner] Rost of an intention to begin dressing as a female at work, the employee was dismissed for refusing to comply with the dress code.
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