A federal appeals court has overruled a lower court and now says a funeral home director in MI must allow a male employee to dress as a woman. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled February 26 that discrimination against a worker who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual is discrimination based on sex.
"We hold that the Funeral Home does not qualify for the ministerial exception to Title VII; the Funeral Home's religious exercise would not be substantially burdened by continuing to employ Stephens without discriminating against her on the basis of sex stereotypes; the EEOC has established that it has a compelling interest in ensuring the Funeral Home complies with Title VII; and the enforcement of Title VII is necessarily the least restrictive way to achieve that compelling interest", said the ruling.
While Stephens claims she was sacked based on the owner's Christian beliefs, which don't align with her transgender lifestyle, the funeral home claims it was simply upholding its gender-specific dress code.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had initially filed the lawsuit, but Stephens later joined the suit because she feared policy changes in the US government might prevent the EEOC from representing her interests.
"Today's decision is an exciting and important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country", John Knight, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's LGBT and HIV Project, said in a March 7 statement.
On the issue of whether the Harris Funeral Homes has leeway to terminate Stephens under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Moore also rules against the claims of the business.
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"The funeral home's dress code is tailored to serve those mourning the loss of a loved one", ADF's McCaleb continues. The decision reversed a ruling from 2016 by a federal judge in Detroit who had said that Rost was not liable because he claimed to operate his business "as a ministry".
Several U.S. courts had previously ruled that discriminating against transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex bias. The ACLU Foundation's Jay D. Kaplan and Daniel S. Korobkin also represented Stephens. Regardless of employers religious beliefs, they are not allowed to discriminate against their employees based on gender or sexuality.
Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State, said in a statement the decision "rights a grievous wrong and protects our core values of religious freedom, fairness and equality".
But the EEOC's complaint also asserts Ms. Stephens was sacked because she did not conform to "sex- or-gender-based preferences, expectations or stereotypes", said the District Court ruling. "Aimee's identity had no bearing on how well she performed her job".
Representing Harris Funeral Home in the case was Alliance Defending Freedom, a anti-LGBT legal firm that has engaged in efforts nationwide to promote the idea religious liberty should take precedent over LGBT rights.
"Today's decision misreads court precedents that have long protected businesses which properly differentiate between men and women in their dress and grooming code policies", he added.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore, a Clinton appointee, said in the 49-page unanimous opinion issued by the court that R.G. However, according to Reuters, this week's case in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court is the first to consider a religious defense in a case.