The Intersection of Religious Freedom and Discrimination in Employment
Aimee Stephens worked in a funeral home in Michigan for six years before she was fired. Why? Because, having presented as a man for six years, she finally spoke to her boss about her desire to transition to female. Two weeks later, she was fired.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on Aimee’s behalf, alleging sex discrimination. And the funeral home was unapologetic. Instead of denying that her firing was due to the fact that she wished to present as a woman, the owner argued that the firing was legal under federal law because of his sincerely-held religious beliefs, which state that it is a sin to transition from one gender to another.
A federal judge sided with the funeral home. The judge said that transgender persons are not a protected class and even if they were, the funeral home owner was protected under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If forced to employ Ms. Stephens, the decision read, the funeral home would face a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs.
The EEOC says that allowing this decision to stand could lead to legal discrimination based not only on gender identity, but on race, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation and more.
The American Civil Liberties Union has since taken up the appeal effort on Ms. Stephens’ behalf. They argue that any form of discrimination against transgender persons is by definition, sex discrimination, which is illegal under federal law.
We will be following this case closely and keeping you updated as the appeal progresses. The final outcome could have major implications for transgender employees and their rights.