By Daniel Wiessner and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A federal law banning sex bias in the workplace prohibits discrimination against transgender workers, a U.S. appeals court said on Wednesday, ruling in favour of a funeral director who said she was fired after telling her boss she planned to transition to female from male.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Inc in Detroit unlawfully discriminated against Aimee Stephens, formerly known as Anthony Stephens, based on her sex.
It also said the funeral home failed to establish that the federal workplace law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, substantially burdened the ability of funeral home owner Thomas Rost, a devout Christian, to exercise his religious rights in his treatment of Stephens.
Every federal appeals court to consider the issue has said that discriminating against transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex bias. But the 6th Circuit was the first to consider a religious defence in such a case.
The court decided a lawsuit that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on behalf of Stephens in 2014.
Rost had claimed that he viewed his work as a religious service for grieving families, and that employing a transgender woman would distract customers.
Rost said he could not be held liable for discriminating against Stephens under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which bars the government from burdening an individual’s religious practice.
But Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore, writing for the court on Wednesday, said Rost could not use his customers’ “presumed biases” as an excuse for firing Stephens.
“Tolerating Stephens’s understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it,” Moore wrote.
The decision reversed a 2016 ruling by a federal judge in Detroit who had said that Rost was shielded from the lawsuit because he operated his business “as a ministry.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that represents the funeral home, did not respond to a request for comment.
Neither did the EEOC or Stephens’ lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rost also said that because his company pays for employees’ work clothes, he would be forced to violate his religious beliefs by paying for Stephens to wear women’s clothing. But the court said he was not legally required to pay for the clothes, so it would not burden his religious practice.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Daniel Wiessner in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)