Religious freedom provides no legal basis to discipline transgender workers who violate workplace gender policies, a U.S. appeals court has ruled in a groundbreaking decision.
The March 7 decision is the first to extend Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 to transgender individuals charging discrimination based on sexual identity, and reverses a lower court ruling that had protected the workplace under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
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R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, shown here at its Livonia, Mich., location, would be forced to allow transgender employees to dress as the gender of their choice under the latest court decision in a Title VII discrimination case.
Detroit-area R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by firing Aimee Stephens after the worker decided in 2013 to begin identifying as a female and no longer wear the company’s male employee uniform, the appeals court ruled unanimously.
“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 court said. “RFRA provides the Funeral Home with no relief because continuing to employ Stephens would not, as a matter of law, substantially burden [funeral home owner Thomas] Rost’s religious exercise.”
Southern Baptist commentator R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the decision’s interpretation reverses the intent of Title VII, adopted when biology at birth was a widely accepted gender identifier.
“That act only makes sense if we know what a man is and a woman is in order to say you cannot prefer one to the other in most workplace situations,” Mohler said in his Briefing podcast March 12. “This is a moral and legal mess but far more than that, it is a direct threat to religious liberty.”
The decision ignores RFRA, Mohler said, and strips the funeral home of its right to an “exemption on the basis of religious conscience and conviction.”
The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the ruling against the funeral home.
Religious freedom watchdog Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the funeral home’s legal representative, said the court’s decision would require the funeral home to allow male employees to dress as women.
“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,” ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb said in a March 7 press release. “The funeral home’s dress code is tailored to serve those mourning the loss of a loved one. American business owners, especially those serving the grieving and the vulnerable, should be free to live and work consistently with their faith.”
The company’s sole corporate officer and majority owner Thomas Rost “is a devout Christian whose faith informs the way he serves customers with compassion during one of life’s most challenging moments,” said ADF, which is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Court opinions should interpret legal terms according to their plain meaning when Congress passed the law.” McCaleb said. “This opinion instead re-writes federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts.”
Harris funeral homes had hired Stephens in 2007 as an apprentice when his name was Anthony and he identified by his biological male gender, according to court documents, and had promoted him to funeral director and embalmer in 2008. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission field suit on Stephen’s behalf and in 2016 had been unsuccessful in the lower court, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Under RFRA, the government cannot force someone like Rost to violate his faith unless it demonstrates that doing so is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest,” the Michigan court had said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)