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Funeral home can't fire transgender worker on religious grounds, court rules

Gay pride flags fly from the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street June 23, 2009 in the Greenwich Village section of New York to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. AFP PHOTO/Stan Honda (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court ruled that a Michigan funeral home broke the law by firing a employee for being transgender. The funeral home director had unsuccessfully attempted to apply the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to this case, arguing that employing a transgender person would violate his Christian religious beliefs about sexuality. The ruling has potentially sweeping consequences for business owners hoping for a religious exemption in similar cases.

The former employee now goes by Aimee Stephens, but was originally hired as a man named Anthony Stephens. Stephens was fired from GR & GR Harris Funeral Homes after disclosing the transition.

The owner of the funeral home, Thomas Rost, said that continuing to employ Stephens would force him to violate God’s commandments. Rost specifically pointed to his company practice of supplying uniforms to employees, arguing that supplying Stephens with a female uniform instead of a male uniform would be an endorsement of a lifestyle that went against his deeply held religious beliefs and principles.

According to the court's decision, Ross said 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.’”

Rost personally owns 95.4 percent of the company.

The decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that “the Funeral Home engaged in unlawful discrimination against Stephens on the basis of her sex.”  The court decision further stated that “the Funeral Home has not established that applying Title VII’s proscriptions against sex discrimination to the Funeral Home would substantially burden Rost’s religious exercise, and therefore the Funeral Home is not entitled to a defense under RFRA.”

The RFRA, which was signed into law on a federal level by President Bill Clinton in 1993, prevents discrimination against the free exercise of religion. Since the federal RFRA law was enacted, 21 states have passed their own versions of the law.

In a press release, American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney John Knight called the decision an “important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the funeral home director, slammed the decision in a press release of their own. “Today’s decision misreads court precedents that have long protected businesses which properly differentiate between men and women in their dress and grooming code policies,” ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb said. McCaleb accused the decision of re-writing federal law and being “directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts.” ADF and Rost are currently discussing an appeal.

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