Aimee Stephens worked for six years at a Detroit funeral home. Then, she came out as transgender and announced that she would begin to live publicly as a woman, which would include dressing consistent with her gender identity.
Two weeks later, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes fired her. Why? The funeral-home owner said Aimee’s behavior contradicted his religious beliefs.
Firing someone because of their gender identity is unlawful sex discrimination and is prohibited by Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Aimee’s case should have been a slam dunk, and her cause was taken up by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the government agency tasked with enforcing federal workplace protections—which filed suit on her behalf.
But the employer said he should be exempted from Title VII because he had a religious motivation for his unlawful actions. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), he claimed, relieves him of the duty to comply with federal nondiscrimination law. And, in the first decision of its kind, the trial court agreed.
RFRA, however, was never meant to allow employers to use their religious beliefs to bypass antidiscrimination laws. In fact, it should not be interpreted to give for-profit businesses any religious exemptions that would harm their employees—doing so would violate the First Amendment by favoring some religious beliefs at the expense of innocent third parties who have different beliefs.
That’s why Americans United and our allies—76 faith leaders and 13 religious and civil-rights organizations—filed a friend-of-the-court brief yesterday in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the court to overturn the lower court’s ruling.
“Were the district court’s decision to stand, for-profit businesses would have broad—indeed, nearly limitless—license to engage in unlawful and invidious discrimination through a simple expedient: describing their discrimination as religiously based,” the brief explains. “Employers could prohibit employees from becoming pregnant out of wedlock, refuse to place women in managerial positions, or require employees to wear the symbols of the employer’s religion—and fire those who do not comply.”
Our allies on this brief represent a wide variety of faiths and denominations—but they stand united in their commitment that robust protections for the right to religious freedom do not include the right to use the law to impose one’s faith on others.
We are involved in this case, E.E.O.C. v. Harris Funeral Homes, through our Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBTQ people and others. You can learn more about the case here. And there’s more information about how RFRA and its state counterparts have been misconstrued and exploited to justify discrimination here.
Follow Carmen Green online at @CNGinDC