On August 18, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Michigan decided in favor of the employer in a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) claiming wrongful termination based on transgender status.

In this case, the employer, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, terminated its funeral director. The EEOC claimed that the employer “fired Stephens because Stephens is transgender, because of Stephens’s transition from male to female, and/or because Stephens did not conform to [the Funeral Home’s] sex or gender based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.” The EEOC also alleged that the employer “engaged in an unlawful employment practice by providing work clothes to male but not female employees.” Both parties filed for summary judgment.

The Funeral Home asserted that it was entitled to an exemption under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) because enforcement of Title VII would “impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious belief.” Under the RFRA, “if the Government substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, … that person is entitled to an exemption from the rule unless the Government ‘demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’”

The court determined that the Funeral Home met its initial burden of establishing that compliance with Title VII substantially burdens its exercise of religion. Therefore, the burden shifted to the EEOC to demonstrate that the burden on the Funeral Home was in furtherance of a compelling government interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Ultimately, the court found that the EEOC “failed to show that application of the burden on the Funeral Home, under these facts, is the least restrictive means of protecting employees from gender stereotyping.” In sum, the Funeral Home was “entitled to a RFRA exemption from Title VII,” and the court granted summary judgment in favor of the Funeral Home.

While the decision is not controlling in Illinois, it adds to the growing body of case law on transgender employees. There are several pending cases nationwide on the rights of transgender employees in both the private and public sector context. HLERK continues to follow these lawsuits.

Please contact Vanessa Clohessy or Kaitlin Atlas with questions about employee and student rights in private religious institutions.