Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Battle Between Transgender Rights and Religious Beliefs

The EEOC recently filed an appeal with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the termination of a transgender employee.  Daniel Wiessner, from Reuters Legal, reported that this “case is the first to reach a federal appeals court in which a company says that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFTA), it was not liable for sex discrimination against an LGBT worker because of its owners' religious beliefs.”

Back in 2014, the EEOC brought a sex discrimination action against R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (the Funeral Home); alleging that the Funeral Home unlawfully terminated a transgender employee based on gender stereotypes.  The EEOC claimed that Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, also prohibits employment discrimination on the bases of transgender status or gender identity.  EEOC alleged that the Funeral Home terminated an employee, Stephens, “because Stephens is transgender, because of Stephens's transition from male to female, and/or because Stephens did not conform to [the Funeral Home's] sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”  The Funeral Home admitted that it terminated Stephens because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man and, instead, would be dressing as a woman.  Stephen’s gender transition was against both the Funeral Home owner’s religious beliefs, as well as the Funeral Home’s dress code polices which required men to wear suits and women to wear skirt suits.

According to 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(b)(2), one of the stated reasons for RFRA is to afford a “defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by the government.”  The district court stated that RFTA, which applies to the government, thereby applies to the EEOC, a federal agency.  The court found that the Funeral Homes established their burden under RFTA, stating, “enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on the ability of the Funeral Home to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs.”  The district court ultimately held that the EEOC failed to establish that the RFTA exemption does not apply in this case.  Equal Empl. Opportunity Commn. v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 14-13710, 2016 WL 4396083 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 18, 2016).

Reuters Legal further reported that, on appeal, the EEOC will argue that district court “erred in applying the RFRA because [the Funeral Home] failed to show that continuing to employ Stephens, who had worked for the company for six years, would interfere with [the owner’s] right to practice his religion.”  EEOC will further argue that the district court was incorrect when it held that the Funeral Home did not engage in traditional sex bias when it terminated Stephens.

The ultimately finding in the upcoming appeal will be significant and employers should stay tuned for more.