On Wednesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the appeal of a transgender woman who sued her former employer for firing her from her job as a funeral director after she informed him that she would begin presenting as a woman because she is transgender.
Aimee Stephens, an employee of the Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, was fired in 2013 after she announced she was transitioning. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled that her civil rights under Title VII had been violated and filed a lawsuit against the funeral home chain on her behalf.
The owner of the funeral home chain, Thomas Rost, argued that he should be allowed to fire Stephens because of his personal religious beliefs opposing homosexuality and transgenderism, which he claims are protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A federal court threw out Stephens’ lawsuit, and her lawyers appealed that decision.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan intervened in the case on Stephens’ behalf in order to ensure her interests are represented and amid fears, thus far unfounded, that the EEOC, under the Trump administration, would alter its stance on whether RFRA allows Rost to claim an exemption to Title VII. Thus far, the EEOC has maintained its interpretation that transgender people are protected under Title VII.
Rost’s arguments asking for such an exemption echo similar arguments made in an upcoming Supreme Court case of a baker who refused to serve a gay couple due to his religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage.
John Knight, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, who argued the case before the 6th Circuit panel of judges, says the idea that an employer could fire someone and use their religious beliefs to justify the termination is “scary.”
“Affirming that [interpretation] would open up the door to all kinds of harmful things,” Knight tells Metro Weekly. “Employers claiming that they didn’t have to hire women, or pay them as much, because of views that women should not be working outside the home, and that sort of thing. And the implications for people who are transgender are astounding as well. They face so much discrimination as it is, so to open up the door to this kind of defense would be a pretty horrible thing.”
Knight says the judges appeared to be skeptical of the claim made by Rost’s lawyers that his decision was based primarily over a dispute over the dress code he imposes at his funeral homes. The judges also seemed skeptical of Rost’s lawyers when they questioned what the impact of ruling in the funeral home’s favor might be, adds Knight.
“The questions of the attorney for the employer suggested that the court understood the arguments that we were making, as well as those made by the EEOC,” he says. “The employer suggested, for example — and has been arguing — that this is about a dress code, and that ruling for my client would somehow take down dress codes. But we pointed out that the record shows otherwise, that my client was fired when she said, ‘I am a woman and I’m going to present as a woman.’ And that’s what the owner of the business said in his deposition.”
The Department of Justice did not file a brief in the case, though Rost’s lawyer cited a recent brief made by the DOJ in an employment discrimination case that was recently argued before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I think the court understands that this is not just about dress codes. This is about my client as a woman, and the objection to her [as transgender],” says Knight. “And I think that they understand how harmful a decision like this could be.”