Judge backs funeral home in transgender firing

Jim Lynch, and Jennifer Chambers

Detroit — A Garden City funeral home won a legal victory Thursday when a federal judge ruled the company did not violate the law when it terminated a transgender employee who wanted to dress as a woman.

U.S. District Judge Sean Cox released his ruling Thursday on a 2014 complaint filed against R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The company, which has three locations in Metro Detroit, wound up under the federal agency’s microscope after firing Amiee Stephens, a funeral director and embalmer who had worked at the company’s Garden City location for six years.

In his 56-page ruling, Cox asserted funeral home owners’ right to practice their faith would be impeded if the federal Title VII law on discrimination were applied in the case.

“The court finds that the funeral home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs,” Cox wrote.

His ruling in the case gave Harris Funeral Homes a summary judgment in the case.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion.

Following the release of Cox’s decision, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan called it “extremely disappointing” and warned that, if allowed to stand, the decision could set a dangerous precedent.

“This represents the staggering implications of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case,” said Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney with the organization’s LGBT Legal Project.

In a 2014 ruling, the nation’s highest court ruled that for-profit businesses were exempt from certain laws if owners had a religious objection.

“Essentially, the judge has said that the funeral home, even one that is not a particularly religious operation, can be exempted from civil rights law with regard to transgender people,” Kaplan said.

In May, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the employment commission’s position, saying the right to practice one’s religion, or no religion, is a core component of civil liberties and is of vital importance to the ACLU.

The case involving Stephens was notable in that it represents one of the employment commission’s first lawsuits aimed at projecting transgender people in the workplace. The lawsuit alleged Stephens was fired after telling her bosses in 2013 she planned be transitioning from a man to a woman.

But officials with R.G & G.R. Harris said they require employees to dress in a manner sensitive to grieving family members and friends. They also claimed protection under 2013’s federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

On Thursday, David Kowalewski, manager of Harris’ Garden City funeral home, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

Thomas F. Rost owns the chain of funeral homes, and his attorneys have argued that the application of Title VII would violate his own religious beliefs. His company’s case was backed in court by the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom and attorney Douglas G. Wardlow.

“This is a significant victory for religious liberty,” Wardlow said Thursday. “This case wasn’t about gender identity. It was about the owner’s religious belief that sex is a immutable and God-given gift.”

Stephens explained to her employers in a July 31, 2013, letter that she would soon start to dress in appropriate women’s business attire at work, the employment commission said. Two weeks later, Harris’ owner fired Stephens, telling her what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable. Stephens declined to speak on the case last week.

“This business owner has a right to run a funeral home according to his religious beliefs,” said attorney Roger Severino, director at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society who has also worked with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

“The Supreme Court has already recognized that a person’s right to religious freedom does not disappear when they earn a living and that there is a conflict where the LGBT left wants to eliminate the religious freedom of people who disagree on those issues.”

Earlier this month during oral arguments, Dale R. Price Jr. argued on behalf of the employment commission, claiming the company had discriminated against Stephens — a violation of Title VII.

“We are trying to achieve a workplace free of sexual discrimination,” Price said. “We must enforce Title VII. We have evidence of sex-based stereotypes in this case.”

Wardlow, meanwhile, argued this month that “Rost believes that he ‘would be violating God’s commands’ by paying for and permitting a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

Mara Keisling, executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, expressed sadness over the court’s ruling Thursday.

“What’s sad about it is that the concept of religious freedom is meant to protect people from the government,” Keisling said. “It is just simply not meant to allow people, or certainly entities like companies, to discriminate. ... It is supposed to be a blade used against the government to defend yourself — not a blade to be used against other people.”

Price could not be reached for comment Thursday.


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Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.