DETROIT (AP) — A judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of a transgender embalmer who was fired by a Detroit-area funeral home after disclosing that she was transitioning from male to female and would dress as a woman.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox ruled that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home didn't discriminate against Aimee Stephens. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Garden City funeral home on behalf of Stephens, who was fired in 2013 after telling her employer she was transitioning.
The EEOC in 2014 sued the funeral home and a Florida eye clinic, saying it was the first time it had filed lawsuits to protect transgender people in the workplace. The commission last year reached a $150,000 settlement with Lakeland Eye Clinic of Lakeland, Florida. Brandi Branson was fired there in 2011 as director of hearing services after saying she was undergoing a gender transition to female.
The EEOC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about Cox's decision. Upon filing the lawsuit, a commission attorney said federal law bars businesses from firing workers because they don't behave according to stereotypes of how men and women should act.
Cox ruled the funeral home met its burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars employment discrimination, "would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs." He concluded the business is entitled to a religious exemption.
The judge last year said federal civil rights law doesn't specifically protect a transgender person. But he cited decisions by higher courts and said there's binding legal precedent to protect people who are fired for failing to conform to a gender-based expectation.
In his latest ruling, Cox said the EEOC claimed Stephens, also a funeral director, had a right not to be subjected to gender stereotypes at work, but the commission hasn't challenged the funeral home's gender-specific dress code requiring female employees to wear a "skirt-suit" and men to wear a "pants-suit with a neck tie."
"If the compelling interest is truly in eliminating gender stereotypes, the court fails to see why the EEOC couldn't propose a gender-neutral dress code as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here," Cox wrote.