A federal court in Michigan sided with a Christian business owner last week, ruling the family-owned funeral home did not violate federal law when it fired a male employee who decided to start dressing like a woman.
Anthony Stephens worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes as a director and embalmer for seven years before telling his co-workers he’d been “living a lie” and planned to transition into a woman. Thomas Rost, Stephens’ employer, said allowing him to interact with grieving families while dressed as a woman wouldn’t work and decided to let him go. Stephens complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the agency decided to sue Rost for wrongful termination based on an employee’s sex, a protected class under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox ruled in a 56-page opinion that forcing Rost to accommodate transgender employees tramples his right to conduct business in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
“This is a huge victory for religious liberty,” said Doug Wardlow, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, who defended Rost in court. “The feds shouldn’t strong-arm private business owners into violating their beliefs.”
All employees at Rost’s three funeral homes follow a specific dress code. Women must wear a skirt suit, while men wear a pantsuit with a necktie. Rost demands every staff member be distinctively attired and impeccably groomed whenever interacting with the public as the funeral home’s representative, according to court documents.
Stephens told Rost a doctor diagnosed him as transsexual and stated his intention to undergo sex reassignment surgery. But before that happened he wanted to live and work as a woman for at least a year.
“At the end of my vacation on Aug. 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Amiee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire,” Stephens wrote to Rost at the end of July.
Rost terminated Stephens two weeks later, saying that allowing a man to dress as a woman in his business would violate his beliefs: “I would be directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable, God-given gift.”
During court proceedings, Rost said he would have let Stephens keep his job if he had continued to dress as a man while at work, regardless of what he did during his personal time.
The EEOC claimed Rost was wrongly forcing gender stereotypes by ordering Stephens to dress as a man, even though that no longer matched his gender identity.
Wardlow told WORLD News Service that was a weak argument since the EEOC wanted Stephens to dress as a stereotypical female.
Cox agreed: “If the compelling governmental interest is truly in removing or eliminating gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of clothing (i.e., making gender ‘irrelevant’), the EEOC’s manner of enforcement in this action (insisting that Stephens be permitted to dress in a stereotypical feminine manner at work) does not accomplish that goal.”
Wardlow called the suit “another baseless attempt for the Obama administration to redefine the meaning of sex without going through Congress.”
The funeral home is not affiliated with any church, and its articles of incorporation do not avow any religious purpose. Rost does not require employees to hold any particular religious views, and the funeral home serves clients of every religion regardless of their faith.
But Rost told the court he views his business as a ministry and believes God has called him to serve grieving families. The funeral home’s website displays passages of scripture, and its mission statement declares its highest priority is to honor God.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Evan Wilt writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine, worldmag.com, based in Asheville, N.C. Used by permission.)