Sixth Circuit: Religious Beliefs Not a Shield to Transgender Bias Lawsuit

By: Jessica B. Jackler, Associate 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a groundbreaking decision on March 7, 2018 in which it ruled that discrimination based on transgender status is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). See Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 16-2424, 2018 WL 1177669 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018).

Aimee Stephens, formerly known as Anthony Stephens, was a funeral director at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in the Detroit-area and was fired after she informed her boss that she was a transgender woman and wanted his support to start dressing in appropriate women’s attire at work. She was terminated two weeks later.

Ms. Stephens filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and thereafter, the EEOC sued the funeral home for sex discrimination in the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in September 2014.

In August 2016, the District Court dismissed the claim, finding that the EEOC had proven sex discrimination but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided the funeral home an exemption from Title VII because the business operated “as a ministry”. In October 2016, the EEOC appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the funeral home’s owner, a devout Christian, argued that he could not be liable for discrimination under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from burdening an individual’s religious practice. He claimed that his work was tantamount to a religious service and that employing a transgender woman would distract customers. The Sixth Circuit Court disagreed, and in reaching its decision, held that the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner did not insulate him from a discrimination lawsuit. The decision reversed the 2016 federal district court ruling.

Practice Pointer: This decision not only adds to the growing number of federal courts that are expanding the scope of “sex discrimination” under Title VII, but also explicitly limits an employer’s ability to defend EEOC claims against it based on alleged exercise of religious freedom. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has previously ruled that Title VII protections apply to sexual orientation, and as such, employers in this Circuit are prohibited from discriminating against LGBTQ employees (See our April 4, 2017 Labor & Employment Blog post for discussion for this case). Time will tell if the U.S. Supreme Court will address this issue and once and for all settle this dispute among the nation’s courts and provide clarity as to whether LGBTQ employees can claim protection from sex discrimination under Title VII. In the interim, this ruling affirms that transgender individuals are protected by federal sex discrimination laws (at least in the Sixth and Seventh Circuits), and that religious beliefs do not protect employers from discrimination lawsuits.

If you have any questions related to policies in your workplace which may impact your LGBTQ employees, please contact us.

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