Americans United was joined by an array of allies in urging a federal appeals court to rule that a Michigan funeral home 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 April 24 in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in E.E.O.C. v. Harris Funeral Homes, AU and allies argued that the funeral home owner cannot cite his religious beliefs as justification to skirt federal anti-discrimination laws. AU urged 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 states. “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 came out as transgender and announced that she would begin living and dressing as a woman. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined Stephens’ rights had been violated and filed the suit on her behalf.
The funeral home owner claimed his actions were permitted under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law intended to protect religious exercise.
AU and its allies argued that RFRA should not be interpreted to give for-profit businesses broad 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.
“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 AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “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.”
Joining AU were 76 clergy members from an array of faiths and denominations and 13 religious and civil-rights organizations.