Funeral Home Uses Religious Freedom Defense to Defeat Transgender Employee’s Title VII Lawsuit

A Detroit-area funeral home recently won a Title VII discrimination case brought by a former employee whom the funeral home fired after the employee announced her intention to transition from male to female. The federal District Court in the case decided that the employer could not be held liable for illegal discrimination because its actions were protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The ruling, issued by a Michigan federal court, is not binding on Tennessee employers, but the case is highly instructive for employers and employees in this state, and it may become meaningful in the future if it reaches the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case revolved around the employment of a funeral director and embalmer who had worked for R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes since late 2007. At first, the employee identified as male and went by the name Anthony Stephens. Stephens’ career was a successful one with the employer until, in late July 2013, Stephens told the employer that she intended to transition from male to female and be known going forward as Aimee Stephens. Two weeks later, the employer fired Stephens.

The case came before the federal trial court with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the employer of violating Title VII. The EEOC argued that Title VII should be read to prohibit employment discrimination based upon gender identity and sexual orientation. Even if the court did not include gender identity under Title VII’s protections, the funeral home still broke the law because its action against Stephens constituted gender stereotyping, the EEOC argued. The Sixth Circuit previously ruled in 2004 that gender stereotyping was a type of sex discrimination, which clearly is prohibited by Title VII.

In Stephens’ case, she had strong evidence that the funeral home fired her for exactly the sort of sex stereotyping that the Sixth Circuit forbade in its 2004 decision of Smith v. City of Salem. The owner of the business clearly testified that he terminated Stephens not for being transgender, or for planning to have sex-reassignment surgery, but because Stephens planned to dress as a woman in the future and refused to continue attending work dressed as a man. In other words, Stephens was fired for not conforming to the employer’s standards for male dress, which the Sixth Circuit’s Smith decision declared to be sex discrimination.

So, with this strong evidence, how did Stephens lose? She lost because, among its defenses, the funeral home claimed that it was entitled to take the action it did based upon RFRA. The defense relied heavily upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s groundbreaking ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, the court declared for-profit businesses to be “persons” for the purposes of religious freedom protections, meaning that business owners could not be forced to act in ways that “substantially burden [their] exercise of religion,” even if the burden arose from a law generally applicable to everyone.

This religious freedom argument won the case for the employer in Stephens’ case. The business was 95 percent-owned by Thomas Rost, a practicing Christian, who believed that, according to his religion, “a person’s sex (whether male or female) is an immutable God-given gift and that it is wrong for a person to deny his or her God-given sex.” Allowing Stephens to attend work dressed as a woman would be a substantial burden to Rost, forcing him to betray his religion’s teaching in this area. Because of this burden on Rost, Stephens’ case could not succeed.

While the decision in favor of this employer is not binding on Tennessee employers and employees, it could have a direct impact in the future. If the EEOC appeals this ruling, the case would go to the Sixth Circuit. A Sixth Circuit decision would have the direct force of law in this state. In the present, however, the Michigan court’s order is illuminative for Tennessee workers and businesses. The case shows that, in addition to defending Title VII cases brought by LGBT employees based upon that law’s failure to expressly include gender identity and sexual orientation as traits protected from employment discrimination, employers may also have the possibility of winning these types of discrimination cases by claiming that their actions are mandated by the sincerely held religious beliefs of the business’ owner and are therefore protected by RFRA.

The funeral home’s successful RFRA defense in this case further highlights how complicated and quickly evolving these types of discrimination cases can be. The best way to protect yourself, as an employee or an employer, is to have legal counsel on your side who is keenly familiar with these issues and wholly up-to-date on the law. The hardworking Tennessee sex discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert are here to help you work to put together a case or defense in your discrimination litigation.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Georgia Transgender and Homosexual Workers and 2016 Employment Discrimination Cases in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 27, 2016

New Transgender Discrimination Case Could Have Impact on Tennessee Employers, Employees, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 4, 2015

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