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Judge Could Set Dangerous Precedent With Transgender Employment Discrimination Ruling

by Stephen Peters August 18, 2016

Today HRC released the following statement in response to a decision by a federal judge in Michigan who ruled in favor of a Detroit-based funeral home who fired a transgender employee due to her gender identity. U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could be used as a defense in a sex discrimination claim under Title VII -- exempting the employer from Title VII's non-discrimination requirements.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the lawsuit against R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes arguing that the employer had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by firing Aimee Stephens based on her gender identity.

“This is a reckless ruling against a woman who was fired simply because she is transgender,” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “Judge Cox’s deeply disappointing decision has the possibility of setting an incredibly dangerous precedent that purported religious beliefs can be used as an excuse to violate non-discrimination laws. It has the potential of opening a Pandora's box of discrimination against a wide range of vulnerable communities. We are incredibly concerned about the implications.”

In his decision, Judge Cox wrote: "...the question becomes whether the law at issue here, Title VII and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, imposes a substantial burden on the ability of the Funeral Home to conduct business in accordance with its religious beliefs. The Court concludes that the Funeral Home has shown that it does."

Referencing the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Hobby Lobby, Judge Cox reasoned that, “The majority in Hobby Lobby concluded that a for-profit corporation is considered a ‘person’ for purposes of RFRA protection. Hobby Lobby, 134 S.Ct. at 2768-69. The Funeral Home, a for-profit, closely-held corporation, is therefore entitled to protection under RFRA.”

Stephen Peters
Stephen Peters


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