Metro Weekly

Supreme Court gives Justice Department more time to respond to transgender woman’s Title VII lawsuit

Michigan funeral home is appealing 6th Circuit decision finding that it violated an ex-employee's civil rights

Aimee Stephens – Photo: American Civil Liberties Union.

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted Solicitor General Noel Francisco extra time to weigh in on a discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender woman against her former employer, reports Bloomberg News.

The Justice Department was asked to reply to a request from lawyers representing R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, a Michigan-based funeral service chain, asking the Supreme Court to take up their appeal of a recent decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Aimee Stephens, who was fired after she began her gender transition.

In its decision, the 6th Circuit found that the funeral home had violated Stephens’ civil rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, when it fired her due to her gender identity. That decision overturned a lower court’s ruling that Thomas Rost, the funeral home chain’s owner, was entitled to a religious exemption due to his personal religious beliefs opposing homosexuality and transgenderism.

Rost’s lawyers immediately appealed the decision, arguing that Title VII’s prohibitions on sex-based discrimination should be interpreted as applying only to cases where people are mistreated based on their biological sex as assigned at birth.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought the initial complaint against the funeral home on Stephens’ behalf, finding there was probable cause that the company had unlawfully discriminated against her based on gender identity.

But the Justice Department, under the Trump administration, has made it clear that they believe that “sex” only refers to one’s biological sex, and should be strictly interpreted that way. If people wish for gender identity to be protected under federal law, they can petition Congress to pass a bill explicitly providing those protections, the Justice Department argues.

Stephens’ case is one of three that are testing whether Title VII’s protections extend to LGBTQ people. The 2nd and 7th Circuit Courts of Appeals have found that Title VII applies to instances involving discrimination based on sexual orientation.

A potential fourth case out of the 11th Circuit, where a county employee alleges he was fired because he is gay, could also make its way before the court if the Supreme Court. In that case, the 11th Circuit found that Title VII does not protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.The lawyers representing the county in question have argued that the Supreme Court should ignore the current split in the circuits and refuse to take up the case.

The Justice Department has until Sept. 24 to respond to whether the court should hear the appeal of Stephens’ lawsuit.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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