Setting a dangerous precedent, a federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker on the basis of the employer’s religious beliefs.
The argument first put forward by her employer’s attorney is that a transgender woman’s clothing would make bereaved people uncomfortable. But a federal judge took it a step further.
Aimee Stephens was a funeral director and embalmer at the Garden City location of Harris Funeral Homes. Two weeks after notifying the owners she was beginning her transition and planned to wear women’s clothing on the job — which is not only a reflection of a trans person’s authentic gender but is also a frequent requirement of healthcare providers who serve as gatekeepers to trans-specific healthcare — she was fired.
The attorneys representing Stephens’ employer asserted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Josh Block told Politico the implications of the ruling were troubling but he expects it to be overturned by a higher court.
“It would mean any religious employer would suddenly have a defense to firing someone in violation of any civil rights law as long as it was based on religious belief. … It’s a very odd decision, and there are a million different ways it can and should be reversed,” Block said.
Liberal members of the Supreme Court who dissented in the Hobby Lobby case warned the conservative majority they were opening up a Pandora’s box and predicted employers would discriminate for almost any reason and claim a religious exemption.
They were right. Hopefully it will be overturned, because the implications are horrible.
In an editorial about transgender rights, the New York Times concludes:
These legal assaults on equal protection for transgender Americans are based on bigotry and the specious claim that they pose a threat to the safety of others. The toll exacted on this vulnerable population is heavy and will remain so as these cases and other litigation involving transgender laws move through the courts.