Michigan Case Brings Victory For Religious Freedom And Transgender Rights

From AU's Wall of Separation blog:


A federal appeals court today issued a welcome decision in EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes. The case involves a funeral home in Michigan whose owner fired an employee, Aimee Stephens, when she came out as transgender and announced that she would begin to wear women’s clothing. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the business for unlawful employment discrimination.

The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the charge of discrimination and rejected the business owner’s claim that he has a religious-freedom right to discriminate.

“Religious freedom should never be used as a basis to discriminate against people and deny their basic human rights,” said Rachel Laser, AU’s executive director. “The court’s decision rights a grievous wrong and protects our core values of religious freedom, fairness, and equality.”

The court’s opinion clarified that discrimination based on sex stereotyping, on transgender status, or on transitioning status is a form sex discrimination.

The court rejected the business owner’s claim that allowing Stephens to wear women’s clothing would violate his religious-freedom rights because it would distract customers. As the opinion states, the owner can’t rely on his “customers’ presumed biases” to claim a burden on his own religious exercise.

The business owner also argued that authorizing Stephens to wear clothing that comports with her gender identity would burden his religious exercise because he believes in strict gender roles for men and women. The court again threw out the argument, holding that “tolerating Stephens’ understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

Moreover, in the court’s opinion, even if allowing Stephens to wear women’s clothing to work somehow burdened the owner’s religious exercise, the government’s interest in ending employment discrimination would still be compelling enough to enforce employment-discrimination laws.

“Aimee Stephens had worked diligently for this funeral home for six years. It’s unconscionable that an employer would fire her simply because she began to live and dress in a manner consistent with her gender identity,” Laser said. “Aimee’s identity had no bearing on how well she performed her job. Her employer is entitled to his personal religious beliefs but has no right to fire her for living in accordance with her identity.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case along with our allies. Today’s decision agreed with almost everything we said. Religious freedom is about fairness—and it’s never fair for an employer to fire an employee based on the employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity.