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EEOC Loses First Round of Transgender Discrimination Case

R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Home (“Funeral Home”) successfully persuaded a federal trial court in Michigan to dismiss the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) case against it for transgender discrimination.

The Funeral Home had a dress code that required male directors to wear a suit with pants and female directors to wear a suit with a skirt. The transgender employee in question wanted to wear a skirt once she began her transition. She was fired because “coming to work dressed as a woman was not going to be acceptable.” The EEOC filed suit, alleging that the Funeral Home’s termination of this employee because she was transgender and because she did not conform to the funeral home’s gender based stereotypes was a violation of Title VII. In response, the Funeral Home had argued that it was exempt from any Title VII requirements under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

The federal district court in Michigan reviewed the Funeral Home’s argument. The owner of the funeral home was a well-established Christian, although the Funeral Home itself did not have a religious affiliation. The RFRA limits the “[g]overnment [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden is shown to be “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The Funeral Home was able to show that allowing employees to dress inconsistently with their biological sex would violate the owner’s religious beliefs and pressure him to give up his business. According to the court, this evidence showed that Title VII “would impose a substantial burden on the ability of the Funeral Home to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs.” The court determined that the EEOC failed to meet its burden of using the “least restrictive means” by putting forth as the only acceptable solution that the transgender employee be able to wear a skirt. A gender-neutral dress code would have been a more appropriate solution per the court’s decision. The Funeral Home was entitled to an RFRA exemption from Title VII. For the record, the court noted that had the transgender employee brought the suit, instead of the EEOC, the RFRA would not apply.