In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) doesn’t allow for transgender discrimination in the workplace.
In a 49-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan “engaged in unlawful discrimination” against transgender employee Aimee Stephens under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964.
In essence, the Sixth Circuit establishes two milestones with the decision.
First, it explicitly concludes discrimination against transgender workers is sex discrimination, and unlawful under Title VII.
Second, it makes clear religious freedom as outlined under RFRA doesn’t supersede Title VII’s prohibition on employment discrimination.
The case, EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes, began in 2013 when Harris Funeral Homes fired Stephens, who has worked there for six years, after she announced that she would transition. The basis for the termination was that by dressing as a women, Stephens would violate the dress code for the business and that would place a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner, Thomas Rost.
In her reasoning for the decision, Moore first establishes anti-transgender discrimination is sex discrimination. Although the Sixth Circuit in the 2004 ruling of Smith v. City of Salem determined sex-stereotyping amounts to sex discrimination, the court had never before ruled anti-trans discrimination is unlawful.
The decision sends the case back to the lower court that ruled the funeral home did have the right to terminate Stephens under RFRA,.
The ruling also represents a loss for Attorney Jeff Sessions. Although the federal government wasn’t a party to the case, Sessions issued a memo asserting transgender people aren’t covered under Title VII despite legal precedent.