The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that discrimination against transgender/LBGTQ employees is discrimination on the basis of sex that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. Moreover, the court held that the employer could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a defense to justify such discrimination.
The Plaintiff began work as a funeral director and presented as a male (birth sex). Eventually, Plaintiff informed the funeral home that she had a gender identity disorder and would transition to female. Plaintiff was fired when she informed the funeral home she was no longer going to present as a male and would transition and dress as a female. The funeral home contended that continued employment would harm its business clients and violated the funeral home’s owner’s Christian beliefs.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit under Title VII alleging unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. The funeral home owner defended the termination under the RFRA. The RFRA prohibits enforcement of a religiously neutral law that substantially burdens religious exercise, unless the law is the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest.
The district court held that Plaintiff was discriminated against based upon sex stereotypes, but held the EEOC could not enforce a Title VII claim because it would burden the employer’s exercise of religion in violation of the RFRA. The court granted summary judgment to the funeral home.
The Sixth Circuit reversed and held that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ status. Perhaps more importantly, the court held that the funeral home was not entitled to a RFRA defense on the ground that continuing Stephens’ employment would not, as a matter of law, burden the employer’s exercise of religion and, even if it did, the EEOC had established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.