Groundbreaking Victory in the 6th Circuit Against Anti-Transgender Employment Discrimination

By Shane Stahl • March 7, 2018 • 1:27 pm

Today, March 7 marked a big win against discrimination based on gender identity or expression – and a refutation of anti-LGBTQ opponents’ attempts to use religion as a license to discrimination. 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 terrible lower court ruling, remanding the case. The case is EEOC and Aimee Stephens v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes.

Read the ruling from Equality Case Files here.

The case centers on Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman fired just because she transitioned from male to female. The panel ruled that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not grant employers an exemption from Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. In 2004 the 6th Circuit recognized that Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex extends to discrimination based on gender identity. After all, if a person faces discrimination because they transition sexes, it follows that they are being discriminated against because of their sex.

On October 4, the appeals court based in Cincinnati, Ohio considered oral argument in the case, which dates back to 2014, when Aimee Stephens claimed that her former employer, Harris Funeral Homes, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by firing her shortly after her transition. She filed a complaint with the EEOC, and the EEOC subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the employer.

In the 6th Circuit, positive case law had already found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment 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, despite the fact that the business is not affiliated with any religious entity. In an unprecedented and shameful ruling in August 2016, a federal judge agreed with the defendants.

However, today’s ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns that troubling religious exemption.

Kudos to the ACLU for representing Aimee Stephens in this important case and the EEOC for bringing the litigation against the funeral home.

The notion of exemptions to non-discrimination protections undermines the whole spirit of such protections. People should not be able to pick and choose who to treat fairly in the public realm based on what they claim as private religious beliefs – it’s as simple as that.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, could dramatically undermine non-discrimination protections if the Court decides to grant businesses that do not want to serve LGBTQ people an exemption from LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination laws. We are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the same way as the 6th Circuit and finds that while religious freedom is vital, it doesn’t give anyone a license to discriminate.

Read more about litigation related to LGBTQ non-discrimination surging through the courts right now in our Litigation Tracker.


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