LGBTI legal experts and advocates have voiced their disappointment at a federal court ruling that backed a Detroit-based funeral home that fired a transgender worker.
Amiee Stephens had been employed by RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes as a funeral director/embalmer since 2007. She worked at the Garden City branch.
In 2013, she informed her employers that she was undergoing gender transition and would soon be presenting in work wear consistent with her gender identity.
Two weeks later, the funeral home fired her, informing her that was she was ‘proposing to do’ was unacceptable.
Stephens action has been backed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which helped her file a sex-stereotyping gender-discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The EEOC not only objected to Stephens being fired, but it also says that the funeral home provided a clothing allowance/work clothes for male employees and not for female employees.
However, a federal court yesterday ruled in favor of the funeral home, saying it did not break the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination.
‘This is a reckless ruling against a woman who was fired simply because she is transgender’
The funeral home director stated that he believed that he ‘would be violating God’s commands’ if he were to permit an employer ‘to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the Funeral Home].’
In his ruling US District Court Judge Sean Cox said: ‘The court finds that the funeral home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs.’
The judge said that the business was entitled to exemption under RFRA (Religious Freedom Exemption Act) from Title VII with regards to Stephens’ termination.
With regard to the clothing allowance claim, he said the EEOC had potentially uncovered ‘possible unlawful discrimination’, but as this had not been raised by Stephens, it should have been filed separately by the EEOC.
‘Because the EEOC did not do that, it cannot proceed with that claim in this civil action. The Court therefore DISMISSES WITHOUT PREJUDICE the clothing allowance claim.’
‘This is a reckless ruling against a woman who was fired simply because she is transgender,’ said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow in a statement.
‘Judge Cox’s deeply disappointing decision has the possibility of setting an incredibly dangerous precedent that purported religious beliefs can be used as an excuse to violate non-discrimination laws. It has the potential of opening a Pandora’s box of discrimination against a wide range of vulnerable communities. We are incredibly concerned about the implications.’
Jillian Weiss, Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) called the decision, ‘A major setback for transgender rights and sends chilling message about the implications of the Hobby Lobby case.’
The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling was prompted when the arts and craft company objected to providing birth control insurance cover for female employers, as set out by US Department of Health and Human Services, citing the owner’s religious beliefs as its reason.
In that particular case, SCOTUS ruled that closely-held, for-profit companies could be considered as individuals with regard to RFRA guidelines.
‘In ruling that an employer can force its employee to wear ‘gender neutral’ clothing because of the employer’s’ religious beliefs, the federal court has ignored both Supreme Court and appeals court rulings that correctly understand gender discrimination to be an illegal form of sex discrimination,’ said Weiss.
‘We cannot go back to the days in which people could be forced to conform to employers’ gender stereotypes in order to keep their jobs. This ruling shows the dangers inherent in so-called religious exemptions that create enormous loopholes, threatening equality laws that protect vulnerable people. We hope this decision is overturned on appeal.’
Following the ruling, the EEOC said it was ‘disappointed with the decision and is reviewing next steps.’
— U.S. EEOC (@EEOCNews) August 18, 2016