The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against a funeral home in Michigan after the funeral home fired an employee, Aimee Stephens, when she came out as transgender and announced that she would begin to follow the funeral home’s dress code for female employees. The EEOC charged the funeral home with sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The owner of the funeral home argued that allowing Stephens to wear women’s clothes would violate his religious-freedom rights because he believed being transgender was wrong. Yet his explanation for why he fired Stephens was based not on his religious beliefs but on his view that some of his customers might feel uncomfortable dealing with a transgender employee and that he might consequently lose some business revenues.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the funeral home. The court recognized that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination against transgender people, but it ruled that the funeral home was entitled to an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits government from substantially burdening a person’s religious exercise unless it doing so furthers a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means available.
The EEOC appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In April 2017, Americans United filed an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit arguing that RFRA did not apply because (1) under the Establishment Clause, religious exemptions from generally applicable laws are not allowed when those exemptions would harm others like Stephens; and (2) the funeral-home owner had not shown that his religious exercise was substantially burdened by compliance with Title VII. We also argued that, even if RFRA did apply, the government’s interest in protecting transgender people from sex discrimination is compelling and satisfies RFRA’s compelling-interest test, meaning that no religious exemption was warranted.
In March 2018, the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, rejecting the funeral home’s RFRA defense because, as we argued, the funeral home had not shown that its religious exercise was substantially burdened by employing Stephens, and in any event the government’s interest in preventing sex-discrimination satisfied RFRA’s compelling-interest test.
In July 2018, the funeral home petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit’s ruling. The Supreme Court agreed to review the question of whether Title VII’s protections against sex discrimination apply to transgender people, alongside two other cases that raised the parallel question of whether Title VII sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation—Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude Express v. Zarda. Alongside other civil-rights organizations, Americans United signed onto an amicus brief in support of Stephens, Bostock, and Zarda, arguing that Title VII’s antidiscrimination protections do apply to LGBTQ people and explaining the harms that would result, particularly for LGBTQ people of color, if LGBTQ discrimination was excluded from Title VII’s scope.
In June 2020, the Supreme Court agreed with us, holding that Title VII’s protections against sex discrimination in the workplace do apply to LGBTQ people.