In Transgender Discrimination Case, Religious Beliefs Are Not a License to Discriminate

In another important decision in the continued evolution of federal law protecting the rights of individuals in the LGBTQ community, a federal appeals Court ruled that Title VII – the federal statute which prohibits discrimination based on “sex” – makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee because they are transgender. The March 7, 2018 decision by the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in E.E.O.C. v. R.G. &. G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES, INC, follows other recent decisions by other federal appellate courts which have concluded that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and continues the trend of broader federal legal rights and protections for LGBTQ individuals.

In addition to concluding that the employer had illegally discriminated against a transgender woman because she informed the company of her intention to have sex reassignment surgery and live and work as a woman so that she could “become the person that her mind already was,” the Court rejected the employer’s defense that it had a right to discriminate against the employee because of the religious beliefs of the company’s owner.
The employer was a privately owned funeral home, whose owner claimed that his personal religious beliefs were incompatible with employing a transgender woman. The company’s owner expressed the belief “that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that he would be ‘violating God’s commands if he were to permit one of [the company’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization’ or if he were to ‘permit one of the [company’s] male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.’” The company’s owner was also opposed to being “complicit in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

Although the Court accepted the sincerity of the owner’s personal religious beliefs, it held that those beliefs did not provide a legal defense, or license, to discriminate against an employee on the basis of her sex under federal law. First, the Court concluded that the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, which exempts religious institutions and clergy from the scope of the federal antidiscrimination statute, did not apply to the funeral home operated by the owner because it was not a religious institution and the transgender woman involved in the case was not a “ministerial employee” in her work as a funeral home director.
Next, the Court rejected the funeral home’s defense under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In order to prevail on such a defense, the funeral home was required to demonstrate that the government’s application of a law was imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, and if that requirement is met, the government can still prevail by establishing that it was seeking to vindicate a compelling government interest, and that the government was using the least restrictive means available to accomplish that compelling government interest. Again, even though the Court accepted the sincerity of the owner’s religious beliefs that his operation of the funeral home was part of his religious exercise because he felt compelled by God to serve people in mourning, the Court held that employing the transgender woman as a funeral director would not burden that religious exercise. Each of the funeral home’s arguments on that issue were dismissed by the Court: (1) there was no evidence that any of the funeral home’s customers would be offended or distracted by the employment of a transgender woman, and even if such evidence existed, an employer cannot use the discriminatory biases of its customers as a justification for a discriminatory act; and (2) permitting a transgender woman to wear clothing that conforms to her gender identity does not burden a business owner’s religious exercise, even if it would conflict with the owner’s personal religious beliefs. According to the Court, simply complying with the law and not discriminating against a woman because she is transgender does not require a business owner to endorse or support the employee’s actions or views.

Alternatively, the Court also concluded that the E.E.O.C. had demonstrated that it was seeking to vindicate a compelling government interest in eradicating discrimination, and that there was no other less restrictive means to serve that objective in this case other than prohibiting the funeral home from discriminating against the transgender employee and terminating her employment.

This case represents a significant victory for the E.E.O.C., and the transgender woman who was the victim of discrimination. As federal law continues to evolve and recognize legal protections for LGBTQ individuals, and business owners take actions in conflict with those rights because of certain personal or religious beliefs, more cases of this nature will end up in the court system. Unless is it is reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, this decision will be reviewed by other courts presented with similar issues in the future.