DETROIT, Mich. — A federal judge has upheld a Michigan funeral home’s decision to fire a male funeral director for his desire to dress as a woman on the job.
As previously reported, Anthony Stephens, who now goes by the name Aimee Stephens, was hired as the funeral director and embalmer for RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes in 2007. In 2013, Stephens informed his employer that he had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and would therefore desire to wear a woman’s suit for work.
Owner Thomas Rost, a professing Christian who also serves on the board of directors for Salvation Army of Metro Detroit, has a company dress code in place, which states that males must wear dark suits and white shirts.
Rost reportedly provides two suits for male employees in accordance with the dress code, and would also provide the business jacket and skirt should a woman be hired as well.
“R.G. employees understand that the dress code requires funeral directors to wear company-provided suits,” legal argument filed in court outlines. “Rost sincerely believes that he would be violating God’s commands if he were to pay for or otherwise permit one of RG’s funeral directors to wear the uniform for members of the opposite sex while at work.”
Because Stephens sought to wear female clothing, which is a violation of the dress code, and because Rost did not feel comfortable with providing a skirt suit due to his Christian convictions, Stephens was let go. He took the matter to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued Rost with the aid of the ACLU for gender discrimination.
The EEOC argued in court that since Rost would not otherwise fire an employee for living in sin, his actions to fire Stephens were unbalanced and selective. But Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) asserted that the dress code served an important purpose: to provide a respectful image to the clients with which employees interact.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox sided with the funeral home and dismissed the EEOC’s legal challenge.
“The Court finds that the funeral home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” he wrote.
“Rost sincerely believes that it would be violating God’s commands if he were to permit an employee who was born a biological male to dress in a traditionally female skirt-suit at the funeral home because doing so would support the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift,” Cox said.
He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Ruling and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as the basis of his decision. The RFRA states that the government cannot force any entity to violate their religious convictions unless they use the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest.”
“The Supreme Court has directed that it is not this Court’s role to decide whether those ‘religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial,’ Cox explained. “Instead, this Court’s ‘narrow function’ is to determine if this is ‘an honest conviction’ and, as in Hobby Lobby, there is no dispute that it is….”
“Significantly, neither transgender status nor gender identity are protected classes under Title VII,” he also concluded.
ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan decried the ruling, stating that it permitted discrimination in the name of religion.
“This case represents the dangerous slippery slope. Any individual employer can cite their own religious beliefs to discriminate,” Kaplan said, stating that the funeral home isn’t a religious non-profit, but a business. “This is now open season to justify discrimination by individuals and businesses against various groups of people.”
But ADF attorney Doug Wardlow applauded the decision, which he found to be a victory for religious liberty.
“The feds shouldn’t strong-arm private business owners into violating their religious beliefs, and the court has affirmed that here,” he said in a statement. “The government must respect the freedom of those who are seeking to serve the grieving and vulnerable. They shouldn’t be forced into violating their deepest convictions.”