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Federal appeals court gives workplace non-discrimination protection to transgender individuals

Aimee Stephens
ACLU of Michigan

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled in favor of a fired transgender funeral director.

Aimee Stephens said she was unlawfully fired by Michigan-based R.G. & G.R Harris Funeral Homes after disclosing she was transitioning from male to female and dressed as a woman.

In a decisionyesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that businesses cannot discriminate against employees for identifying as transgender and that Harris Funeral Homes had discriminated against Stephens by firing her in 2013.  

Jay Kaplan is a staff attorney with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union which is representing  Stephens in this case.

According to Kaplan, the decision is a major victory for transgender individuals because the appellate court made it clear they are protected by federal laws that outlaw workplace discrimination based on sex. 

The panel of three appellate judges wrote in the decision that "discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII." 

The appellate judges also reversed the lower court's decision that religious beliefs could exempt employers from anti-discrimination laws. The appeals court rejected the argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act justified the firing of a Stephens. 

"They made it clear that an employer's religious beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, do not create a license to discriminate against transgender people," said Kaplan.

According to Kaplan, employment discrimination against transgender people is pervasive and, as a result, many live in poverty; so this decision "gives a great deal of hope to a lot of people out there."

Gary McCaleb is an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom which is representing Harris Funeral Homes. In a written statement, he said the Sixth Circuit opinion "re-writes federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts."

McCaleb said Harris Funeral Homes is considering whether to appeal the decision.

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