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Sixth Circuit Decision: Title VII Protects Transgender Workers

On March 9, 2018 by Schnader in Labor and Employment

By Jo Bennett

On March 7, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. holding that discrimination based on transgender status and transitioning identity is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case concerns Aimee Stephens, a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., who was terminated after informing owner Thomas Rost that she intended to transition from male to female.  Stephens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and after an investigation, the EEOC brought suit against the funeral home for unlawful sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment to the funeral home, and this appeal followed.

A large part of the opinion dealt with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from burdening an individual’s exercise of religion absent a compelling governmental interest. The district court had agreed with the funeral home that RFRA trumps Title VII, but the Sixth Circuit held otherwise, noting that a religious claimant cannot rely on presumed biases to establish a burden, nor is he burdened by merely employing a transgender person. The court noted, “Bare compliance with Title VII—without actually assisting or facilitating Stephens’s transition efforts—does not amount to an endorsement of Stephens’s views” and “the fact that Rost sincerely believes he is being compelled to make such an endorsement does not make it so.”

The decision is the first in the nation to address the issue of whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on sex includes gender identity bias without a showing that the worker did not conform to traditional gender stereotypes. This makes it easier for workers in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee to bring discrimination claims.

This decision follows a Second Circuit opinion filed last week, which held that sexual orientation discrimination is banned under Title VII.


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