Legal Alert: Sixth Circuit Upholds Title VII Protections for Transgender Employees

March 7, 2018

The U.S. Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit held today that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it fired a funeral director after she told her boss that she planned to transition from male to female.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, among other protected characteristics. A prior Sixth Circuit case had established that discrimination based on a person’s gender-nonconforming behavior violated Title VII.  The Sixth Circuit expanded this precedent by holding that discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status also violates Title VII. 

Harris Funeral Homes attempted to defend their termination under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act precludes the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling government interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Circuit Judge Karen Nelson rejected this argument, stating “RFRA provides the funeral home with no relief because continuing to employ Stephens would not, as a matter of law, substantially burden [owner Thomas] Rost’s religious exercise, and even if it did, the EEOC has shown that enforcing Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.”

This decision overturns a lower court’s ruling, and grants a win to trans-rights activists.

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