For decades transgender people have been fired or turned away from jobs just because of who they are. Courts and federal agencies are finally starting to recognize this for what it is — illegal sex discrimination — and they’re holding employers accountable.
But now, a Michigan funeral home is trying to turn back the clock by claiming that this country’s religious freedom protections give it a license to discriminate against transgender employees. As we explain in our recently filed friend-of-the-court brief, religious freedom doesn’t give employers a free pass to evade our civil rights laws, whether those laws are being used to remedy discrimination against women, people of color, or transgender individuals.
Aimee Stephens had worked for nearly six years as a funeral director at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes when she informed the funeral home’s owner that she is a transgender woman and planned to start dressing in appropriate business attire for a woman. She asked for understanding and support. The owner fired her two weeks later, explaining that it would be "unacceptable" for her to dress and present as the woman she is. After learning what happened to Aimee, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the funeral home for sex discrimination.
At first, the funeral home tried to argue that transgender people aren’t protected under federal workplace antidiscrimination laws. They raised this argument because we don’t have a federal law, nor in most states do we have a state law, that explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or transgender status. As a result, people in 30 states can be fired or denied a job just because they are transgender, without recourse to a law that explicitly prohibits such discrimination.
Fortunately, a number of federal courts and the EEOC have recognized that the federal law against sex discrimination in employment protects transgender people. In Aimee’s case, the court held that her employer can’t discriminate against her for dressing consistently with her gender identity.