Religious DiscriminationCan an employer’s religious beliefs defeat an otherwise discriminatory termination? Employers in Michigan may soon have much-needed guidance on this issue based on an employment discrimination case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Federal District Court in Michigan.

Specifically, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. In 2013 over its decision to fire a transgender funeral director (EEOC v RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Complaint). Both sides filed motions for summary judgment on April 7, 2016, and awaiting a decision from the District Court Judge.

Religious Beliefs and Transgender Discrimination

As to the underlying discrimination suit, the employee had worked for the funeral home beginning in 2007. In July 2013, the employee informed the funeral home and her coworkers that she was undergoing gender transition from male to female and intended to address in appropriate business attire as a woman going forward. But on August 15, 2013, she was fired by the majority owner, Thomas Rost, because he found it unacceptable based on his religious views. He owns 94.5% of the business and claims he is a devout Christian.

The EEOC claimed that the employee, as a transgender woman, was fired because of sex and, therefore, this termination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rost did not dispute that his religion played some role in firing the funeral director in 2013. According to court filings:

Rost sincerely believes that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex (whether male or female) is an immutable God-given gift and that it is wrong for a person to deny his or her God-given sex.

Rost sincerely believes that he would be violating God’s commands if he were to pay for or otherwise permit one of RG’s funeral directors to wear the uniform for members of the opposite sex while at work.

The EEOC, however (and perhaps citing to Deuteronomy 13:1 “Whatever I am now commanding you, you must keep and observe, adding nothing to it, taking nothing away”) responded that Rost’s religious exercise is very selective and based on convenience or profit. Consider for example:

  • Rost’s business employs people of various faiths;
  • Non-Jewish employees sometimes wore traditional Jewish head coverings as a courtesy when hosting Jewish funeral services;
  • The facilities were not decorated with religious fixtures to avoid offending visitors;
  • The business is not a Christian business enterprise, it is not affiliated with a church, and its articles of incorporation “do not avow any religious purpose; and
  • Rost routinely acted against his religious beliefs to stay in business by performing cremations instead of holding funerals or accommodating the non-Christian beliefs of his customers.

The EEOC stopped short of noting that Mr. Rost also chose to ignore God’s directives set forth in Deuteronomy 13:7-11 with respect to the fired employee, the non-Christian employees, and non-Christian customers.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve always found religious discrimination claims to be incredibly fascinating. In part because of the numerous issues – legal, social, and theological – that are often in play. This case is no different and we’ll be monitoring this case for a decision on the competing motions for summary judgment.

But one point that is especially unique and thought provoking here is how much fidelity must an individual give to his or her religion to warrant protections – either as a basis to justify an otherwise unlawful firing or to claim religious discrimination?

As noted above, the EEOC highlighted numerous inconsistencies between the employer’s claimed beliefs that motivated the termination and how the business was run. And we’ve defended a number of religious accommodation cases where individuals often take a very liberal “buffet” approach as to what “sincerely held religious beliefs” they choose to live by and to ignore.

For more information about religious discrimination or other employment legal issues, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn is a Michigan attorney. Since 2001, he has worked with businesses and individuals to address employment law issues under federal and Michigan law.