In his opinion giving the funeral home summary judgement and tossing out Stephens’ lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox wrote that the civil rights of the funeral director and embalmer who had worked for the Garden City, Mich. based business for six years did not supercede the religious freedom of the funeral home’s owners.
Stephens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the funeral home in 2014 — one of two landmark cases that were the first lawsuits brought by the EEOC against private employers on behalf of fired trans employees.
The EEOC claimed the funeral home violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender stereotyping. Attorneys for R.G. & G.R. Harris said the owners had a religious right to fire Stephens, argued that she was biologically male and that she violated a dress code requiring men to wear suits.
“In ruling that an employer can force its employee to wear ‘gender neutral’ clothing because of the employers’ religious beliefs, the federal court has ignored both Supreme Court and appeals court rulings that correctly understand gender discrimination to be as illegal as sex discrimination. It would be sad indeed if we are to go back to the days in which people could be forced to conform to outmoded masculine and feminine stereotypes in order to keep their jobs.”
“This represents the staggering implications of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case,” said Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Legal Project.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that for-profit businesses were exempt from certain laws, provided their owners held a religious objection to those laws.
“Essentially, the judge has said that the funeral home, even one that is not a particularly religious operation, can be exempted from civil rights law with regard to transgender people,” Kaplan told the Detroit News.
The judge’s ruling noted that the funeral home company’s owner, Thomas Rost, is a devout Christian whose life’s work stems from his religious beliefs, including that shunning one’s biological sex is an affront to God.
“Rost operates the funeral home as a ministry to serve grieving families while they endure some of the most difficult and trying times in their lives,” Cox wrote.
Although there have been several decisions by federal appellate courts, ruling that federal law prohibiting sex discrimination applies to transgender people, this is the first one to address the issue of religious freedom.
A Christian legal group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, represented the funeral home. Spokesman Douglas Wardlow, hailed the ruling in a statement to Reuters: “The feds shouldn’t strong-arm private business owners into violating their religious beliefs, and the court has affirmed that here.”
At press time, it is unclear if EEOC officials will file an appeal. A spokesperson told Reuters: “We are disappointed with the decision and reviewing next steps.”