Aimee Stephens worked as director of a Detroit-area funeral home for six years, responsible for preparing and embalming bodies. Although she is transgender, she initially hid her female appearance and identity from her employer during her employment, presenting as male. When Ms. Stephens informed her employer that she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and would begin presenting as female at work, she was fired.
The ACLU of Michigan represented Ms. Stephens in filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the funeral home, by firing her for presenting as female, engaged in unlawful gender stereotyping in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. After investigating the case, the EEOC concluded that Ms. Stephens’ employer had violated her rights under Title VII and in 2014 filed a lawsuit on her behalf in federal court.
This case, along with another filed the same day in Florida, is the first time the EEOC has challenged discrimination against transgender employees under Title VII. The funeral home then retained counsel from the right-wing group Alliance Defending Freedom and, for the first time, asserted that it had a “religious freedom” right to fire Ms. Stephens.
In 2016, Judge Sean Cox accepted the funeral home's religious freedom defense and granted summary judgment to the funeral home. Judge Cox ruled that the funeral home had violated the Civil Rights Act by firing Ms. Stephens, but that a separate federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act immunized the funeral home from liability.
On appeal, the ACLU intervened on behalf of Ms. Stephens and participated in briefing and oral argument. In March 2018, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that Title VII protects transgender employees from discrimination and that the funeral home owner’s religious beliefs do not justify violating federal antidiscrimination law.
In July 2018, the funeral home asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
(EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Jay Kaplan and Dan Korobkin; National ACLU Attorneys John Knight, James Esseks, Gabriel Arkles and Brian Hauss.)
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