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Federal appeals court rules for fired transgender funeral director

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] on Wednesday struck down an employee termination based on the employee's transgender identity, despite the employer's strong religious beliefs.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) [official website] pursued the claim on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a former employee of Defendant-Appellant R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. [website]. Stephens was terminated two weeks after revealing to the funeral home that she was transgender and would begin dressing as a woman for work. Funeral home owner Thomas Rotz's defended the termination, arguing transgender identity is against his religious beliefs. The court acknowledged the company's religious endorsement was strong and even pointed to the mission statement included on the website. The court described the mission statement as: "[T]he Funeral Home's 'highest priority is to honor God in all that we do as a company and as individuals' and includes a verse of scripture on the bottom of the mission statement webpage."

The court reversed [text, PDF] the district court's grant of summary judgment, finding the funeral home in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act [text] for unlawful termination. The court further found that Rotz was not afforded protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) [text, PDF] because Title VII does not substantially burden Rotz's ability to freely exercise his religion, and the government's interest in protecting employees from sex discrimination outweighs protection under RFRA. Finally, the court found the RFRA is the least restrictive means in protecting individuals from sex discrimination, stating:

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.
During the EEOC's investigation, it also found discrimination in the clothing allowance for men and women. Public-facing male employees were given clothing that complied with the company's dress code, while like female employees were not given such allowance. The court found such policy discriminatory and further held that the EEOC was permitted to bring the claim, even though Stephens did not raise the issue in her complaint. The investigation into Stephen's claim made it reasonably foreseeable that the EEOC would also discover the unlawful clothing policies.

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