Aimee Stephens – Photo: American Civil Liberties Union.
On Wednesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Michigan funeral home had unlawfully discriminated against a transgender employee when it fired her after she informed her employer that she would be presenting as a woman, in accordance with her gender identity.
The 6th Circuit’s decision overturns a lower court decision finding that the personal religious beliefs of Thomas Rost, the owner of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, were sufficient enough to exempt him from nondiscrimination laws.
Rost has argued he was justified in firing Aimee Stephens because he opposes transgenderism and homosexuality, based on his Christian beliefs dictating that gender is fixed and binary.
The 6th Circuit’s decision is also notable because it is the first such decision handed down by a federal appeals court finding that transgender people are protected by provisions within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit sex-based discrimination. Other appeals courts have recently found that Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Today’s decision is an exciting and important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country,” John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, said in a statement. “In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced. But this ruling affirms that that is illegal, setting an important precedent confirming that transgender people are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
“It also ensures that employers will not be able to use their religious beliefs against trans employees, ruling that there is no ‘right to discriminate’ in the workplace,” Knight added. “We are thrilled for Aimee, and for all trans folks, to be able to announce this win today.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed an amicus brief supporting Stephens, praised the court’s decision.
“Religious freedom should never be used as a basis to discriminate against people and deny their basic human rights,” Rachel Laser, the executive director of Americans United, said in a statement. “The court’s decision rights a grievous wrong and protects our core values of religious freedom, fairness and equality.”
The organization had previously opined in its amicus brief that allowing Rost to claim a religious objection would have unintended negative consequences for all workers, not just those who identify as LGBTQ.
For example, under the arguments put forth by Rost, an exemption from nondiscrimination laws could allow employers to police their employees’ reproductive decisions, refuse to place women in managerial positions, or require employees to wear the symbols of a religion that they may not practice. If they objected to these actions, they could be fired at will.
“Aimee Stephens had worked diligently for this funeral home for six years. It’s unconscionable that an employer would fire her simply because she began to live and dress in a manner consistent with her gender identity,” Laser said in a statement. “Aimee’s identity had no bearing on how well she performed her job. Her employer is entitled to his personal religious beliefs but has no right to fire her for living in accordance with her identity.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, noted that the 6th Circuit’s decision marked yet another instance in which the courts rejected U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ interpretation of Title VII as only applicable to instances where a person is discriminated against because of their biological sex at birth.
“Once again the courts have affirmed what we already know, that transgender people, like all LGBTQ people and indeed all Americans, are entitled to equal protection from discrimination in their places of employment,” Ellis said in a statement. “This is yet another signal that governance by bias and bullying, which has become hallmarks of the Trump Administration, as well as the anti-LGBTQ activists and hate groups with whom they are aligned, will not stand in this nation.”