Major world religionsOn May 17, 2017, attorneys for a corporation operating a Detroit funeral home that fired a transgender employee filed its appeal brief. The brief argues that the corporation could fire a transgender employee who refused to follow its sex-specific dress code because allowing her to wear women’s clothes at work would violate the religious beliefs of the corporation’s majority shareholder.

Background of the Transgender Discrimination Case

The case, EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral, was covered here (Religion and LGBT Discrimination – Who is Protected Under Title VII) and here (Corporate Religious Beliefs – A New Defense in Employment Discrimination Claims?). The EEOC filed a complaint in district court alleging that R.G.’s discharge of Stephens constituted unlawful discrimination because of Stephens’s transgender status, because of Stephens’s “transition from male to female,” and because of sex stereotyping. 

R.G. moved to dismiss the wrongful termination claim for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. The district court, by Judge Sean Cox, ruled that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of . . . sex” does not include discrimination based on transgender status. The district court further ruled that the EEOC’s complaint stated a claim for relief for impermissible sex stereotyping in violation of Title VII. However, the district court concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempted R.G. from the enforcement of Title VII. 

The Funeral Home’s Argument on Appeal

On appeal, attorneys for the corporate funeral home argued on behalf of the majority shareholder, Thomas Rost, that

Allowing [the former employee] to contravene the dress code and wear a female uniform in the public-facing role of funeral director would have caused R.G. to convey a message in direct conflict with Rost’s religious belief that a person’s sex is an immutable, Godgiven gift, thus violating Rost’s religious convictions.

The corporation’s attorneys further argued that “Rost’s “faith compels [him]” to “serve grieving people” as he does through [the corporation].” 

Rost’s “faith compels [him]” to “serve grieving people” as he does through [the corporation] … In other words, R.G. is the embodiment of Rost’s religious exercise. Requiring R.G. to authorize a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would directly interfere with—and thus impose a substantial burden on—R.G.’s ability to carry out Rost’s religious exercise of caring for the grieving.  

This case should be closely watched by companies and their HR professionals. This is because of the potential implications this case has for Title VII and discrimination claims. Specifically, the corporation is arguing Title VII workplace protections against discrimination are not exempted from RFRA’s reach, meaning any employer or its owners, shareholders, or members could argue religious beliefs take priority over anti-discrimination laws.  

A copy of the corporation’s brief is available here, EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral, May 17, 2017). 

For more information about this case or federal and Michigan anti-discrimination employment law, contact attorney Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn has been representing businesses and individuals when it comes to employment discrimination laws since 2001.