Transgender woman wins appeal in court case against Detroit-area funeral home

Ted Eytan  Flickr

Ted Eytan Flickr

A federal appeals court has ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects a funeral home director who was sacked after disclosing that she was transitioning from male to female. The court delivered its ruling March 7.

The 6th Circuit's decision is also notable because it is the third such decision handed down by a federal appeals court finding that transgender people are protected by provisions within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit sex-based discrimination.

Although the issues are closely connected, most courts have handled them as distinct legal questions.

Stephens was represented in her lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in its 2012 ruling in Macy v. Holder concluded that anti-trans discrimination amounts to sex discrimination under Title VII. The court ruled against R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which has locations in Detroit, Garden City, and Livonia. The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces US anti-discrimination laws against private employers, and it brought the case on behalf of fired transgender employee Aimee Stephens.

According to a press release from the ACLU, the court ruled her firing was unlawful and that transgender individuals are protected by federal sex discrimination laws. "Thus, if the EEOC's complaint had alleged that the funeral home fired Stephens based exclusively upon Stephens' status as a transgender person, then this court would agree with the funeral home that the EEOC's complaint fails to state a claim under Title VII", the ruling states.

The case has been remanded to district court where further proceedings will be consistent with the latest ruling. ADF represented the funeral home in the case.

Karen Moore - a federal judge who once ruled that judges have almost absolute immunity from claims over their behavior, even when they are "petty, unethical and unworthy" - now has concluded that a funeral home must allow a male employee to dress in skirts, nylons and high heels.

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The court rejected not only the funeral home owner's assertion that a high level of propriety is necessary to conduct business, but also his appeals to faith and conscience.

"Court opinions should interpret legal terms according to their plain meaning when Congress passed the law", he said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore, a Clinton appointee, said in the 49-page unanimous opinion issued by the court that R.G.

In a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Stephens in the case, her lawyers called the decision an important victory for transgender workers. "In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced".

"But this ruling affirms that that is illegal, setting an important precedent confirming that transgender people are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act", Knight said.

A three-judge panel on a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled Wednesday the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act doesn't allow employers to engage in anti-transgender employment discrimination.

Thus, even if we agreed with the Funeral Home that Rost's religious exercise would be substantially burdened by enforcing Title VII in this case, we would nevertheless REVERSE the district court's grant of summary judgment to the Funeral Home and hold instead that requiring the Funeral Home to comply with Title VII constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering the government's compelling interest in eradicating discrimination against Stephens on the basis of sex.

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