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EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes

Case Concerning Employment Discrimination Based on Gender Identity Under Title VII

Key Date: April 22, 2019
Status: Case Will Be Heard by the U.S. Supreme Court
Legal Team: EEOC & ACLU
Type: Employment Discrimination

Case Overview:

EEOC v. Harris Family Funeral Homes is a case concerning employment discrimination based on gender identity or expression. The case dates back to 2014, when Aimee Stephens claimed that her former employer, Harris Funeral Homes, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against her because of her gender identity. She filed a complaint with the EEOC, and the EEOC subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the employer.

The case argues, as many courts have ruled in the past, that existing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex also extend to discrimination based on gender identity. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against people based on their sex – and many litigators over the course of many years have successfully argued that this also protects LGBT people from employment discrimination.

In the 6th Circuit, positive case law has already found that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. However, after losing a motion to dismiss, defendants in the case argued that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the funeral home’s decision to fire Aimee Stephens, despite the fact that the funeral home is not affiliated with any religious entity. In an unprecedented and shameful ruling, a federal judge agreed with the defendants. This effort to seek a religious exemption from Title VII under the federal RFRA was appealed to and overturned by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Aimee Stephens is represented by the ACLU. The EEOC is leading litigation against the funeral home.

Latest in the Case:

On April 22, 2019, the United States Supreme Court granted a Cert. petition in the case, meaning it will reviewing the lower court ruling during its 2019-2020 term. The Court granted the petition but limited it to the question of whether Title VII’s “sex” discrimination protections extend to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Previously, on March 7, 2018, a 3-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, voted to reverse a lower court ruling, remanding the case. The decision reaffirms that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and determines that businesses citing anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs are not entitled to an exemption from Title VII.

Case History:

  • September 25, 2014: The EEOC files a lawsuit against Harris Family Funeral Homes on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was fired shortly after informing her employer that she is transgender.
  • April 2016: After losing its motion to dismiss the case, claiming that no federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity (an argument that ignores that the 6th Circuit has held that this discrimination constitutes “sex discrimination”), the funeral home claims an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • August 18, 2016: In an unprecedented distortion, U.S. District Court Judge Sean F. Cox in Michigan ruled that a Detroit-area funeral home was in the clear for firing a transgender employee, because the funeral home’s discriminatory actions were protected under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This is an unprecedented ruling, representative of the ongoing hijacking of the federal RFRA, passed in 1992 with the intent of religious minorities – not ensuring that employers could use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate.
  • October 13, 2016: The EEOC appeals the ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • October 4, 2017: Oral argument before 6th Circuit Court of Appeals takes place.
  • March 7, 2018: In a decisive ruling, the 6th Circuit overturns the lower court ruling, remanding the case. The decision reaffirms that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and determines that businesses citing anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs are not entitled to an exemption from Title VII.
  • July 24, 2018: The Alliance Defending Freedom files a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • January 4, 2019:  With the case fully briefed, the cert. petition is distributed for the January 4 conference at the U.S. Supreme Court, the first chance for the Justices to take action on the petition.The Justices take no action at this conference or more than a half-dozen subsequent conferences held from January through April 2019.
  • April 22, 2019: The U.S. Supreme Court grants review in this case and two others that concern anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination. The cases will be heard in the Court’s 2019-2020 term.

Last Updated April 22, 2019

Supreme Court Docket ACLU Case Page Equality Case Files: 6th Circuit Docket

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