DETROIT — A Michigan man who identified as a woman, who was at the center of a major Supreme Court case surrounding whether or not Christian businesses must accommodate the wishes of an employee who decides to begin identifying as the opposite sex, and whether or not the hiring and dismissal practices of religious entities are protected in such situations, has sadly died following a battle with kidney disease.
“With heavy hearts, we share that Aimee Stephens, our client and dear friend, whose landmark case is the first about the civil rights of transgender people to be heard by the Supreme Court, died today at home in Metro Detroit with [his] wife, Donna Stephens, at [his] side,” the ACLU of Michigan posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
According to reports, Stephens, 59, whose birth name is Anthony, had been struggling with kidney disease for some time and was in a wheelchair last fall when he visited the U.S. Supreme Court to witness oral argument in his case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
As Stephens took a turn for the worse and was no longer able to undergo dialysis, he went home on hospice two weeks ago. The Detroit News reported that Stephens might not live to see the results of his legal challenge before the nation’s high court.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
As previously reported, the U.S. Supreme court is hearing three appeals cases surrounding the matter of homosexual and transgender discrimination in employment practices, including the Harris Funeral Homes lawsuit, which involves an explicitly Christian-based funeral home.
“R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes recognize that its highest priority is to honor God in all that we do as a company and as individuals,” the company’s website states. It also features a quote from Matthew 6:33, in which Jesus taught that men should “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
In 2007, Stephens was hired as the funeral director and embalmer for the funeral home and presented himself as a man at that time. Six years later, Stephens informed his employer that he had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and would therefore desire to wear a woman’s suit for work.
However, owner Thomas Rost, a Christian who 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.
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 consequently took the matter to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued Rost with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in alleging gender discrimination.
“R.G. employees understand that the dress code requires funeral directors to wear company-provided suits,” attorneys for Rost outlined in a legal brief. “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.”
CONFLICTING COURT RULINGS
In August 2016, 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.
However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Cox’s ruling and overturned the decision the following year.
“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 [he] refused to abide by [his] employer’s stereotypical conception of [his] sex, and therefore the EEOC is entitled to summary judgment as to its unlawful-termination claim,” wrote Judge Karen Nelson Moore on behalf of the unanimous panel.
The case was therefore appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the matter in April 2019. Oral argument was presented last fall and a decision is expected within weeks.
WHAT THE CASE MEANS FOR CHRISTIANS
A ruling in favor of Stephens and the other plaintiffs would mean that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” would be interpreted as including homosexuality and transgenderism and would thus prohibit Christian businesses, faith-based nonprofits and other organizations from declining to hire, or from firing, those whose behavior conflicts with their religious beliefs or mission.
“Redefining ‘sex’ as ‘gender identity’ has major consequences for a lot of people,” explained Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Rost in court. “It would mean the denial of equal opportunities for women and girls in athletics at the high school and collegiate level. It would mean the violation of intimate, private spaces at high schools and colleges — including showers, restrooms, and locker rooms. And it also affects safe spaces at women’s shelters.”
The U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in the case last August, writing, “Congress has specifically prohibited gender identity discrimination in multiple other statutes that the Department of Justice will continue to enforce vigorously. But Congress has not taken that step in Title VII. Unless and until it does so, the proper role of the executive, and of this court, is faithfully to enforce the law as written.”
200 corporations have asked the court to read gender identity into the law, including Amazon, American Express, AT&T, Ben & Jerry’s, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, CVS Health, eBay, Etsy, Facebook, General Motors, Google, IKEA, KIND Healthy Snacks, Levi Strauss & Co., Lyft, Macy’s, Marriott International, Microsoft, Nike, PayPal, Pinterest, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks Corporation, State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance, T-Mobile, Vimeo, The Walt Disney Company, Wells Fargo and Zillow.
It is not clear why those who do not identify as Christian would seek to be employed at an explicitly Christian organization or business with a faith-based mission.
Rost kindly expressed his condolences after learning of Stephens’ death this week, stating of the family through his attorney, “We pray that God’s love and presence will comfort them in this difficult time.”