Court Rules that Law Protects Transgender Employees

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 15, 2018

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GLBTQThe Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that transgender people are protected by a civil rights law that forbids workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.

As the New York Times reported,

The court held that job discrimination on the basis of transgender status was inherently sex discrimination, and that the employer in this case could not claim an exemption from the law because of his religious beliefs.

The case was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a funeral director who was fired after telling the owner of the funeral home where she worked that she intended to transition from male to female and would be dressing as a woman on the job.

Aimee Stephens (formerly known as Anthony Stephens) had been employed by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. owned by Thomas Rost.

Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states (in part):

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;

Rost claimed that Title VII shouldn’t be enforced against the funeral home because requiring it to continue to employ Stephens while she dressed and represented herself as a woman would

constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon Rost’s (and thereby the Funeral Home’s) sincerely held religious beliefs, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

Religious Freedom

The RFRA is a 1993 federal law that arose out of a case in which Native Americans who worked as drug rehab counselors were fired after they used peyote as part of religious ceremonies conducted by the Native American Church.

Rost asserted that he

“sincerely believe[s] that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of [the Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the] organization” or if he were to “permit one of [the Funeral Home’s] male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work…. In particular, Rost believes that authorizing or paying for a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would render him complicit “in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

Gender Identity

According to the EEOC,

Discrimination against an individual because of gender identity, including transgender status, or because of sexual orientation is discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII.

The court agreed, holding that “discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status violates Title VII.”

The court’s decision was contrary to a position taken by the Trump administration.

As the Times reported, in October Attorney General Jess Sessions wrote to Justice Department lawyers that

Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women but does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.

As I blogged about recently, some federal circuit courts have ruled that Title VII protects gay workers from employment discrimination. However, another federal court has ruled that sexual preference isn’t covered by Title VII.

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