Apr 25, 2017

Americans United for Separation of Church and State was joined by 76 faith leaders and 13 religious and civil-rights organizations in urging a federal appeals court to rule that a Michigan funeral home had violated a transgender employee’s civil rights when it fired her for wearing women’s clothing in accordance with her gender identity.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in E.E.O.C. v. Harris Funeral Homes, Americans United and allies argue that the funeral home owner cannot cite his religious beliefs as justification to skirt federal anti-discrimination laws – in this case, Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. We urge the appeals court to overturn a 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 asserts. “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.”

The case began in 2013 when the funeral home fired Aimee Stephens, an employee of six years, after she announced that she would begin living as a woman. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that Stephens’ rights had been violated and filed the suit on her behalf.

The funeral home owner claimed that his actions were permitted under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law intended to protect religious exercise for all. Americans United and our allies argue that RFRA should not be interpreted to give for-profit businesses religious accommodations that harm their employees. Doing so would violate the First Amendment because it establishes favored religious beliefs at the expense of innocent third parties who have different beliefs.

Furthermore, the brief argues that the funeral home owner is not hindered from practicing his religion simply because an employee lives by a different set of beliefs: “Employers are required to – and do – comply with all manner of antidiscrimination requirements every day. Yet no court of which we are aware has ever considered compliance with those legal obligations to constitute personal endorsement of the protected employees’ behavior.”

“RFRA is intended to provide important safeguards for religious exercise; it is not intended – nor should it be allowed – to upend employment antidiscrimination laws,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director. “This reading of RFRA would lead to considerable harm to employees and runs afoul of true religious freedom. The district court’s decision should be reversed.”

The brief was authored by AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellows Bradley Girard, Carmen Green and Kelly M. Percival. AU’s involvement is through our Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBTQ people and others.

Joining AU are 76 clergy members from an array of faiths and denominations; these faith leaders believe that the right to religious freedom does not grant the right to use the law to impose one’s faith on others. Also joining the brief are 13 religious and civil-rights organizations.