Michigan Court Finds Religious Exemption in Transgender Discrimination Case

Lev Craig

Last week, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., the federal district court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled on summary judgment that a funeral home’s termination of a transgender employee did not violate Title VII because the employer was entitled to a religious accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

In October 2007, Aimee Stephens, started working at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (the “Funeral Home”) as a funeral director and embalmer. On July 31, 2013, Ms. Stephens wrote a letter to the Funeral Home, in which she came out as transgender. In this letter, Ms. Stephens informed the Funeral Home that, as part of her transition from male to female, she planned to wear women’s clothing to work in accordance with the Funeral Home’s gendered dress code, which mandates that male employees wear a suit and tie and that female employees wear a skirt suit.

About two weeks later, Thomas Rost, Ms. Stephens’ supervisor and the owner of the Funeral Home, terminated Ms. Stephens’ employment explicitly because she intended to wear the skirt suit to work. Shortly afterward, Ms. Stephens filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, and the EEOC filed suit on her behalf.

The legal status of transgender people as a protected class is complicated. No federal laws explicitly prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals, but the EEOC considers discrimination against a transgender person to be discrimination based on sex and, as such, treats transgender discrimination as a violation of Title VII:

[The EEOC] interprets and enforces Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination as forbidding any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. These protections apply regardless of any contrary state or local laws.

However, the EEOC’s positions are not legally binding, and courts have not been unified on the question of whether transgender people are protected under the sex discrimination provision of Title VII.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., the EEOC alleged two Title VII violations. First, the Funeral Home allegedly violated Title VII by terminating Ms. Stephens because she is transgender. Second, it allegedly violated Title VII by subjecting Ms. Stephens to unlawful sex-stereotyping when it refused to let her wear a skirt suit to work. That is, even if the Funeral Home chose to view Ms. Stephens as a man, it still violated Title VII by terminating her because of sex stereotypes about how men and women should dress.

The court dismissed the EEOC’s first claim on the grounds that “transgender status is not a protected class under Title VII,” but did rule that the EEOC “stated a claim on behalf of Stephens for sex-stereotyping sex-discrimination under binding Sixth Circuit authority.” Upon conclusion of discovery, the Funeral Home moved to dismiss the second claim on summary judgment, arguing that (1) the gendered dress code did not constitute sex stereotyping, and (2) allowing Ms. Stephens to dress as a woman would violate the Funeral Home’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

In last week’s decision, the court rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that the gendered dress code could not constitute sex stereotyping. However, the court still found that the Funeral Home had not violated Title VII, because the Funeral Home was entitled to a religious exemption under the RFRA. Mr. Rost, the owner of the Funeral Home, is Christian and believes that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” Allowing Ms. Stephens to wear the uniform for female employees, Mr. Rost stated, would “violate God’s commands,” as Mr. Rost believed doing so would make him “directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

The court cited Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the 2014 Supreme Court decision which found that, under the RFRA, a closely-held for-profit corporation is exempt from complying with any federal law to which the corporation’s owner objects on religious grounds, provided that there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s compelling governmental interest. The court ruled that “under the unique facts and circumstances of this case, the Funeral Home is entitled to a RFRA exemption from Title VII (and the sex-stereotyping body of case law under it).” Therefore, the Funeral Home’s termination of Ms. Stephens was not unlawful, as the court determined that the EEOC had failed to show “that enforcement of the religious burden on the Funeral Home is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest of protecting employees from gender stereotyping in the workplace.” For instance, the court suggested that the Funeral Home could impose a company-wide gender-neutral dress code, rather than allowing Ms. Stephens to wear a skirt.

In New York, state and city antidiscrimination laws protect workers against transgender discrimination. If your employer has discriminated against you because of your gender identity, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.