Federal appeals court gives workplace non-discrimination protection to transgender individuals

Ted Eytan  Flickr

Ted Eytan Flickr

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that R.G.

In a landmark decision on Wednesday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against transgender workers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Although the issues are closely connected, most courts have handled them as distinct legal questions.

In a decision yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that businesses can not discriminate against employees for identifying as transgender and that Harris Funeral Homes had discriminated against Stephens by firing her in 2013. When she informed her boss, Thomas Rost, of her intention to transition from male to female, Rost fired her. Stephens then filed a complaint with the EEOC. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes "engaged in unlawful discrimination" against Stephens under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964.

"Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex", one of the judges wrote in the ruling.

In 2016, a federal district court ruled in favor of the funeral home and its workplace dress code. But R.G. & G.R. Harris signaled that it might take the case to the Supreme Court.

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Gary McCaleb is an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom which is representing Harris Funeral Homes.

"The funeral home's dress code is tailored to serve those mourning the loss of a loved one".

"The unrefuted facts show that the funeral home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer's stereotypical conception of her sex", said judges Karen Nelson Moore, Helene White and Bernice Donald. "Court opinions should interpret legal terms according to their plain meaning when Congress passed the law". He said in a statement that the opinion "rewrites federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts". McCabe said his organization is "consulting with our client to consider their options for appeal". In a statement, John Knight, a senior staff attorney with ACLU's LGBT & HIV Project said, "In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense, as our client Aimee Stephens personally experienced".

The appellate judges also reversed the lower court's decision that religious beliefs could exempt employers from anti-discrimination laws.

The court rejected Rost's claim that being required to employ Aimee Stephens, formerly known as Anthony, while she dresses as a woman would constitute an unjustified substantial burden on his sincerely held religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. "I'm thrilled with the court's decision".

Whether Title VII anti-discrimination laws in employment extend to sexual orientation and gender identity is an issue that's been has been widely disputed.

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"RFRA's not a blank check to discriminate", Nevins said.

It's being called a big win with national significance for transgender rights. Rost said that would be a violation of the company's sex-specific dress code, and that it would also violate his sincerely held religious belief that sex is an immutable gift from God that can not and should not be changed. Other appeals courts have recently found that sexual orientation is also protected under Title VII.

The EEOC didn't immediately respond March 7 to Bloomberg Law's request for comment.

Anne Noel Occhiallino of the EEOC in Washington represented the commission.

ACLU of MI represented Stephens in the case. ADF's Douglas G. Wardlow also represented R.G.

Stephens completed her employment with Harris Funeral Home working as an embalmer and funeral director.

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