In another victory for the Obama administration’s position that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression is already forbidden by the Civil Rights Act, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a funeral home violated the law when it fired a trans employee — and that RFRA did not give them an exemption from that law.
On Wednesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination against transgender people. It also held that employers may not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify discrimination against LGBTQ workers. The court’s landmark decision is an emphatic rejection of the legal theory that businesses may fire or mistreat female and minority workers under the guise of religious liberty. It also affirms the growing judicial consensus that existing civil rights law protects LGBTQ employees.
Wednesday’s case, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, centers around Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who worked as a funeral director. When she started the job, Stephens presented as male, the sex she was assigned at birth. But in 2013, she told her boss, Thomas Rost, that she had a gender identity disorder and planned to transition. Rost promptly fired her. He later testified that he terminated Stephens because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man,” and Rost believes that gender transition “violat[es] God’s commands” because “a person’s sex is an immutable God-given fit.”
The second part is also important. The defendant’s argument was that even if the Civil Rights Act did bar such discrimination, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act should give them an exemption from that law. No court has ever agreed that RFRA grants exemptions from any anti-discrimination laws and this court didn’t either. And that’s very important because, once you started granting such exceptions, our anti-discrimination laws would, for all practical purposes, be gutted. The exemptions would quickly swallow the rule. You can read the full ruling here.