DETROIT (WWJ) – Is firing a transgender female for refusing to wear men’s clothing sex discrimination or the religious right of the company’s owner?
A Federal Appeals court will take up the issue Wednesday.
Amiee Stephens is a biological male who identifies as female. She worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City as an embalmer and funeral director for six years, until she was fired in 2013 after telling her boss she was transitioning from male to female and refusing to comply with their dress code.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Stephens’ behalf alleging sex discrimination, saying it was wrong for the company to force her to dress as a male.
The funeral home owner, Tom Rost, says he’s a devout Christian who wants to maintain his private business according to Christian principles, and having a transgender employee doesn’t fit that business model.
A lower federal court ruled in favor of Rost and the funeral home and dismissed the case, saying federal civil rights laws don’t specifically protect a transgender person.
“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the EEOC from forcing the funeral home to allow a biologically male funeral director to dress as a woman while on the job,” said Doug Wardlow, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represents the funeral home.
Wardlow said enforcing a sex-specific dress code corresponding toward how an employee is born is not discrimination.
“A religious business owner like Tom Rost shouldn’t be forced by the government to alter the way he presents the company’s image to the public by forcing him to have an employee that dresses as a member of the opposite sex and therefore contradicts his sincerely held religious beliefs,” he said.
Still, Stephens maintains she was discriminated against. The EEOC says the funeral home is violating federal law by discriminating based on gender stereotypes. Federal law “prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer’s stereotypes of how men and women should act,” said EEOC attorney Laurie Young.
A decision by the appellate court could come by the end of the year.
“It’s a clash between personal rights and religious rights,” said WWJ Legal Analyst Charlie Langton. “I think because it’s a private company, I think the owner’s private beliefs may control here, which was the decision in the lower court. But a very close case, a complex case, and it will likely end up in the Supreme Court.”