At the beginning of March, the Sixth Circuit delivered a ruling in favor of transgender people everywhere. The court found that an already-existent civil rights law prohibits employers from discriminating against transgender folks for religious reasons. With this most recent ruling, the Sixth Circuit joins a growing chorus of judges who assert that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects transgender people from discrimination in the workplace. The working theory: firing somebody for being transgender relies on sex-based stereotypes that assume a person’s gender must conform to certain genitals.
The circuit court’s ruling, authored by Judge Karen Nelson Moore, partially overturned a district court’s decision. According to the lower court, though the employee experienced veritable discrimination under Title VII, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permitted the employer to discriminate on the basis of religion.
The case in question involves a woman named Aimee Stephens who decided to transition from male to female while working at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. After informing her boss of her decision, the employer, Thomas Rost, fired her almost immediately. “He was no longer going to represent himself as a man,” said Rost, willfully misgendering Stephens. Mr. Rost continued, saying he would be “[v]iolating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of [the Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the] organization.” Rost, a devout Christian, is not officially affiliated with a religious organization. Nonetheless, the lower court opined that the RFRA permits private employers to discriminate for religious reasons.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s ruling, arguing that Title VII explicitly forbids such discrimination. Judge Moore provided two basic theories supporting her decision. First, Title VII protects against sex-based discrimination, which means anyone who experiences discrimination on the basis of sex has the right to sue for relief. Discrimination against a transgender person automatically assumes certain sexist stereotypes about the way a person should identify given certain biological features. Moore put it this way: “[A]n employer cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status without imposing its stereotypical notions of how sexual organs and gender identity ought to align.”
The second theory is commonsensical. According to Moore, an employer can’t discriminate against an employee on the basis of their being transgender “without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” And discrimination that is motivated by a person’s sex must be in violation of Title VII.
The court also touched on the fact that Stephens was transitioning when she was fired. According to Moore’s decision, “Title VII protects persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitutes an inherently gender-nonconforming trait.”
The Religious Aspect
As for RFRA: the law states that the government may burden a person’s religious freedom if: 1) the burden “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and 2) the burden “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Rost argued that his ability to practice his religion would be burdened by Stephens’ presentation as a woman. The employer added that having a transgender employee would put off customers, effectively putting him out of business. Moore did not accept Rost’s arguments. According to the judge, Rost cannot discriminate against an employee simply because he thinks his customers might be biased against transgender folks. Moore added that Rost could tolerate Stephens without supporting her. In other words, Stephens employment at the funeral home would not “substantially burden [Rost’s] religious practice.”
Finally, the RFRA provides two exceptions (mentioned above). Here, Moore contended, the government has a compelling interest to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so even if Rost had experienced a substantial burden, Title VII would override it.
This decision marks a victory for transgender employees throughout the US. Looking ahead, we might wonder whether the court’s ruling will have any real impact.