Legal arguments about discrimination and religious freedom were heard Wednesday as a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals weighed the case of a Metro Detroit transgender women fired from her job at a Garden City funeral home because she wanted to dress as a woman.
Aimee Stephens had worked as a funeral director and embalmer for the R.G. & G.R. Funeral Home for six years before being terminated in 2013 when she informed her boss that she planned to start dressing in woman’s business attire.
The lawyer for the funeral home, which has several locations in Metro Detroit, is asserting the right of religious freedom in its decision, while an American Civil Liberties Union attorney is saying this is a case of discrimination that could “open the door” for other forms of discrimination in the future.
“This is a case about my client being fired for who she is,” said John Knight, an attorney for the ACLU’s national LGBT Project who argued Wednesday before the appeals court. “(Aimee Stephens) has struggled with her identity and to be fired for her identity is a devastating thing.”
The case will likely test the application of a U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that struck down an Affordable Care Act requirement that family-owned corporations pay for health insurance coverage for contraception because it violated a federal law protecting religious freedom
Knight said the argument of firing someone based on religious beliefs “could open the doors to discrimination” in other cases.
The funeral home company was represented by Douglas Wardlaw of the Arizona-based Alliance for Defending Freedom, who said Wednesday the case is about protecting religious freedom.
The court fight is “another step on the journey” to let the Garden City funeral home owner “operate his business according to his sincerely-held Christian beliefs,” Wardlaw said. The owner was practicing his faith when he fired Stephens for wanting to dress as a woman, he said, adding that the owner believes “a person’s sex is an immutable gift from God.”
There is “no danger” of discrimination against others when a business owner practices their religious faith in employment issues, Wardlaw said.
During the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed in 2014 a discrimination lawsuit against the funeral home in Detroit federal court on Stephens’ behalf. U.S. District Judge Sean Cox ruled last year the funeral home owner’s right to practice religion would be infringed upon if the federal government were allowed to apply the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
No date was given Wednesday on when a ruling would be made.