Law & the Courts

Federal Court Extends Workplace Sex-Discrimination Protections to People Who Identify as Transgender

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that employers cannot use religious beliefs as a reason for firing those who identify as transgender.

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that RG & GR Funeral Home in Detroit violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by firing a funeral director for his decision to transition from male to female.

The decision marks an significant extension of Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, national origin, and religion.

Aimee Stephens, formerly known as Anthony, was terminated shortly after telling his boss, Thomas Rost, that he intended to transition. Rost later testified he fired Stephens because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man,” and said he believes that gender transition “violat[es] God’s commands” because “a person’s sex is an immutable God-given fit.”

The Sixth Circuit decision overruled a lower court, which held that Rost had the right to fire Stephens under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Judge Karen Nelson Moore disputed the RFRA exemption in her opinion, pointing out that Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating on the basis of sex and, “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

She further argued that Stephen’s continued employment does not place a “substantial burden” on Rost’s religious practice, and even if it did, the court should still rule in favor of Stephens because the government has a “compelling interest” in preventing sex-based discrimination, and there is no less “restrictive means” by which to do so.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Stephens in conjunction with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, praised the court’s decision as “an exciting and important victory for transgender people and allied communities across the country.”

The Sixth Circuit joins a growing collection of federal appeals court to interpret Title VII as barring anti-LGBTQ discrimination, despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ protestations to the contrary.

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