Mar 07, 2018

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today issued an opinion that a Michigan funeral home discriminated against a transgender employee when it cited religious beliefs in firing her for wearing women’s clothing consistent with her gender identity.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which was joined by 76 faith leaders and 13 religious and civil-rights organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, hailed the court’s decision:

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

The case, E.E.O.C. v. Harris Funeral Homes, began in 2013 when R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. fired 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 appeals court today reversed a lower court’s opinion and ruled that the funeral home violated Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it fired Stephens and that the funeral home had no right under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to cite religious beliefs as a basis for firing a transgender employee.

“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.”

The brief filed by AU and allies in April 2017 explained: “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. 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.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.