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Federal Appeals Court Finds Title VII Protects Transgender Employees

Aimee Stephens presented as a man when she started her employment as Funeral Director at Harris Funeral Homes. After working there for about 6 years, she notified owner Thomas Rost via letter that she had a “gender identity disorder” and intended to become a woman. Mr. Rost fired Ms. Stephans about two weeks later. Mr. Rost admittedly fired Ms. Stephans because she would no longer be a man. She filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the EEOC initiated litigation on her behalf. 

In defense of his actions, Mr. Rost relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under the RFRA, employers may be able to avoid legal compliance when they can demonstrate that a law substantially burdened the exercise of their religion. Mr. Rost believed that allowing a transgender individual to represent his company was a violation of his religious beliefs. The federal district court dismissed the case, agreeing that the RFRA protected Mr. Rost’s right to exercise his religion and holding that Title VII did not offer protection to transgender individuals.

In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that: “Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex.” The court reasoned that if an employer fired an employee based on his or her transgender status, it was essentially impossible for that decision not to be motivated in some measure by sex. Additionally, sexual stereotyping, which has been held by the U.S. Supreme Court to be a violation of Title VII, necessarily also included transgender persons. “Title VII protects transgender persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitute an inherently gender non-conforming trait.”

With respect to the RFRA defense, the circuit court found that it did not shield Mr. Rost from liability. First, the court noted that the Act protected religious exercise and not “religious beliefs.” Mr. Rost could not use his perception that customers would not like working with Ms. Stephans to meet his burden under the RFRA. While Mr. Rost genuinely may have objected to Ms. Stephans’ transition on religious grounds, “[a]s a matter of law, tolerating Stephen’s understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”