On March 7, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined in a landmark ruling that federal law protects transgender individuals from employment discrimination. The Sixth Circuit also determined that private employers cannot use their religious beliefs to justify discrimination against transgender individuals.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision case in the case of EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes involved Aimee Stephens, who was born biologically male, and who was working as a funeral director. After working for some time, Aimee told the company’s owner of plans to transition to female and to begin dressing as a woman at work due to a gender identity disorder. The owner then fired Aimee on the basis that “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man.” The owner further explained that he disapproved of gender transition as part of his sincerely held religious beliefs because it “violat[es] God’s commands.”
Aimee filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to challenge the termination on the basis that it amounted to unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The EEOC sued the company, and a district court in Michigan ruled that the company had engaged in sex discrimination against Aimee because the termination was based on unlawful sex stereotypes. The district court further ruled that the company nonetheless legally terminated Aimee because a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permits private employers to discriminate against workers when their personal religious beliefs compel them to do so.
The case went to the Sixth Circuit on appeal, where the Court held unequivocally that Title VII does protect transgender individuals from employment discrimination. As a result, the company’s decision to terminate Aimee due to Aimee’s transgender status and plans to transition did amount to illegal sex discrimination. The court explained that discrimination based on transgender status improperly punishes an employee based on sex stereotyping, or failing to confirm to gender norms. The court rejected the company’s argument that transgender discrimination is not sex-based discrimination and explained that it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on transgender status without taking the employee’s sex into account.
After resolving the first issue, the Sixth Circuit turned to the issue of whether the company could justify its discrimination against Aimee by pointing to the owner’s religious beliefs. This was significant because the Sixth Circuit was the first federal court of appeals to address the religious defense in a case of this nature. The Sixth Circuit evaluated all of the issues and ruled that the owner’s religious beliefs did not provide a defense and therefore did not excuse Aimee’s discriminatory termination. The Sixth Circuit rejected the company’s argument that Aimee’s presence as a transgender individual would create a distraction for the company’s customers and explained that this argument was based on assumptions about the customers’ “presumed biases” and it was therefore inadequate. The Sixth Circuit also rejected the company’s argument that employing Aimee would substantially burden the owner’s religious practices, since merely employing Aimee was not tantamount to supporting Aimee’s sex or gender identity.
These issues are sure to spark further debate and litigation, especially in light of statements made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others in the administration and the legislature. We will continue to monitor the developments.