Federal court rules transgender people covered by law banning workplace sex bias

Alicia Farmer
March 9, 2018

The court ruled that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the freedom of a business to maintain a dress code consistent with its sincerely held faith convictions.

The case, EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes, began in 2013 when Harris Funeral Homes fired Stephens, who has worked there for six years, after she announced that she would transition.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday once again held that workplace anti-discrimination laws extend to protections for transgender workers.

In a decision yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that businesses can not discriminate against employees for identifying as transgender and that Harris Funeral Homes had discriminated against Stephens by firing her in 2013. However, while the funeral home provided the men clothing free of charge, there was no provision to compensate women for their clothing costs.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the funeral home, said in a statement released Wednesday that the ruling "re-writes federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts".

The decision remands the case back to trial court, which concluded the funeral home did have leeway to terminate Stephens under RFRA, a 1993 law meant to protect religious minorities that requires the federal government to take the least restrictive path when infringing upon religious liberty.

"Court opinions should interpret legal terms according to their plain meaning when Congress passed the law", McCaleb added.

The appeals court said Title VII's ban on sex discrimination protected Stephens, and permitting her to represent herself as a woman did not substantially burden Rost's religious beliefs.

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"In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced", John Knight, a senior staff attorney with ACLU's LGBT & HIV Project, said in a statement.

"Binding 6th Circuit precedent establishes that any person without regard to labels such as transgender can assert a sex-stereotyping gender discrimination claim under Title VII ... if that person's failure to conform to sex stereotypes was the driving force behind the termination", Judge Cox ruled. "We are consulting with our client to consider their options for appeal".

A unanimous three-judge appeals court panel said, "The district court correctly determined that Stephens was sacked because of her failure to conform to sex stereotyping in violation of Title VII".

The panel's ruling also goes against a memorandum from the Trump administration issued last October in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained that Title VII's sex discrimination clause is about biological sex and not gender identity.

Federal appeals courts that have looked again at the law in the wake of the EEOC's rulings have divided on the issue as it relates to sexual orientation bias.

"Including protection for gender identity under Title VII would threaten the religious liberty of people like Tom Rost who operate their businesses according to the principles of their faith".

However, it erred "in finding that Stephens could not alternatively pursue a claim that she was discriminated against on the basis of her transgender and transitioning status", said the ruling.

Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote the opinion, which was joined by Judges Helene N. White and Bernice B. Donald.

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