Opinion: EEOC uses my funeral homes to rewrite laws
On April 22, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case involving my small family-owned business, which has operated in the Detroit area since 1910. That case will likely decide whether the term “sex” in Title VII, a nondiscrimination law that Congress passed in 1964, actually means “gender identity.”
I never dreamed of being involved in a case of national significance. And I certainly never envisioned my funeral business standing up to the strong-arming of a federal government agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When I purchased the business from my father and my uncle, who had been partners, the business had six locations. Over the years, due in part to industry changes, Harris Funeral Homes has streamlined to three locations — one of which my son manages. We run very lean, with only 18 employees, half of whom are part time.
A rich heritage of Christian ministry may have been part of what compelled me to serve the grieving. (One of my ancestors — 14 generations before — came here as a minister on the Mayflower). But regardless of what brought me here, I’ve been running our funeral homes for more than 50 years, and I absolutely love what I do. The only job that I enjoy more is being a grandfather to my eight grandkids.
Since the EEOC sued my company, I’ve had to put any major business plans on hold. A business owners’ hands are tied while waiting on the outcome of litigation.
Despite that, we’re weathering the storm. Most people understand when they find out that we issue a suit and tie to each of our male funeral directors, and that we expect them to wear the provided clothes. But the EEOC sued us when we parted ways with an employee who refused to comply with that clothing requirement, which we have in place out of sensitivity to grieving families.
That employee had worked for us for years—always wearing the male suit—but had come to believe that he was female and proposed wearing female clothing instead. When we determined that we couldn’t agree to that, it led to the EEOC complaint.
The EEOC seized upon the opportunity. On the same day, it filed two lawsuits: one targeted my funeral homes, and another targeted Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida. Both suits aimed to achieve through the courts the rewrite of Title VII that the agency desires. But only Congress can change the law, and that’s what I and my attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom hope the Supreme Court will affirm.
The EEOC accused both my business and the eye clinic of discrimination on the basis of “sex” — a term the agency reads to mean “gender identity.” The eye clinic settled. I admit that I was tempted to settle also.
But “sex” and “gender identity” are not the same thing. Businesses have the right to rely on what the law is at the time that they make business decisions. Employers like me shouldn’t risk incurring punitive damages for following existing laws.
The EEOC is usurping the role of Congress, hoping to create drastic change through the courts. Amongst other things, those changes would put employers in difficult situations. As my former employee testified, employers would have to treat men who believe themselves to be women as women unless those employees don’t “meet the expectations” of what females “typically” look like. That sounds unworkable — and like it’s demanding that employers stereotype their own employees.
I’m not taking it personally. I know I’ve been targeted because the EEOC wants to rewrite federal law. After all, what interest could the EEOC have in forcing small funeral homes like mine to change how we serve families mourning the loss of loved ones?
We’re just a means to an end.
Thomas Rost is the owner of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, with three Detroit area locations.