Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which covers Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio, issued a significant Title VII ruling. In EEOC v. R.G &G.R. Harris Funeral Homes the Court held that discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.
The EEOC sued the funeral home after it fired an employee, Stephens, who was transitioning from male to female. It was undisputed that Stephens was fired because he was “no longer going to represent himself as a man” and “wanted to dress like a woman”. In 2016 a Michigan District Court dismissed the case based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (‘RFRA”), because the employer’s sincerely held religious belief “is that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift”. The EEOC appealed.
In reversing the District Court and rejecting the RFRA defense the Court of Appeals held that Stephens was fired because of her failure to conform to sex stereotypes, in violation of Title VII. While this type of claim has been recognized under Title VII since 1989 when it comes to men and women not conforming to the traditional stereotypes for their gender ( e.g. “you are not feminine enough”‘; “you dress too masculine”), the 6th Circuit took it a step further with this holding:
‘Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex, and thus the EEOC should have had the opportunity to prove that the Funeral Home violated Title VII by firing Stephens because she is transgender and transitioning from male to female.”
This is a landmark ruling that employers located within the 6th Circuit must adhere to going forward. If you have questions about how it impacts your business, give us a call.