Court rules in favor of fired transgender funeral director

DETROIT (AP) — A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a woman who said she was illegally fired by a Detroit-area funeral home after disclosing she was transitioning from male to female and dressed as a woman.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City discriminated against director Aimee Stephens by firing her in 2013. The decision returns the case to a federal judge who had dismissed the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC learned through its investigation that until October 2014, the funeral home provided clothing to male workers dealing with the public but not females. The appellate judges said it was reasonable for the EEOC to investigate and discover the "seemingly discriminatory clothing-allowance policy."

U.S. District Judge Sean Cox ruled in 2016 that the funeral home met its burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars employment discrimination, "would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs." The appellate judges countered in Wednesday's opinion that "discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII."

"The unrefuted facts show that the Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer's stereotypical conception of her sex," the judges wrote.

Stephens said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union that nobody "should be fired from their job just for being who they are," adding "I'm thrilled with the court's decision."

Matthew Rost, a company manager and funeral director, told The Associated Press that the ruling "doesn't surprise me" but declined further comment.

Gary McCaleb is an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the funeral home. He said in a statement that the opinion "rewrites federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts." He added an appeal is being considered.

Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, called it a "path-breaking decision" that builds on other, precedent-setting cases.

"A growing number of courts have recognized transgendered individuals are protected," he said. "It does address the funeral home's religious excuse in a comprehensive and powerful way. That will be cited as law ... and it will have an effect throughout the country, too."

The EEOC in 2014 sued the funeral home and a Florida eye clinic, saying it was the first time it had filed lawsuits to protect transgender people in the workplace. A year later, the commission reached a $150,000 settlement with Lakeland Eye Clinic of Lakeland, Florida. Brandi Branson was fired there in 2011 as director of hearing services after saying she was undergoing a gender transition to female.

Copyright Associated Press, all rights reserved.

The Gayly. March 7, 2018. 4:00 p.m. CST.