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U.S. Supreme Court will decide Michigan transgender woman’s employment discrimination case

Jay Kaplan and Aimee Stephens stand next to each other
Rowan Niemisto
Aimee Stephens (right) and ACLU lawyer Jay Kaplan (left) say the funeral home that fired Stephens after she came out as transgender violated the federal law known as Title VII.


Aimee Stephens took months to compose a letter to her employer in July 2013. It read: 

“With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is. I cannot begin to describe the shame and suffering that I have lived with. At the end of my vacation on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.” 

These words propelled Stephens into the heart of a legal case soon to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court ? a potentially landmark case for the future of LGBTQ rights in this country.

Stephens had worked for six years as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan. Through those years, she dressed and presented herself as a man. At home, she dressed as she knew herself to be ? a woman.

After she presented the letter to her boss, the funeral home fired Stephens and a legal battle began. The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Stephens' firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Attorneys for the funeral home filed an appeal. And on October 8th, Aimee Stephens’ case will be argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jay Kaplan is an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, which is representing Stephens in her case. He hopes that this case will confirm discrimination based on someone's gender identity can be classified as sex discrimination under Title VII.

"I think even if you were a justice that takes a textualist approach and decides just based on the words, it’s very clear, particularly in Aimee’s situation, that she was terminated from her job because of her sex, because of who she is as a transgender woman," said Kaplan. 

headshot of John Bursch
Credit Alliance Defending Freedom
John Bursch is vice president of appellate advocacy and senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.

John Bursch disagrees with Kaplan's interpretation of the law. Bursch is senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom. He scheduled to defend Harris Funeral Homes in front of the court on October 8th. 

Bursch says that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to classify discrimination against a transgender person as sex discrimination sets it apart from the other federal circuit courts. 

“Over the 50 years since Title VII was passed, every single other circuit at different times had said the exact opposite,” Bursch says. “That a claim that someone makes that they were treated different because of their transgender status ? that is their internal sense of gender and the way they want to present their gender to the outside world ?  is not sex discrimination.” 

That is why, Bursch says, Congress has repeatedly considered bills that would amend Title VII to include people discriminated against based on their identity as a transgender person. 

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Stephens, Bursch says, it would set a precedent for how the word "sex" was interpreted in federal law. He claims that doing so would have widespread ramifications, and could jeopardize the fairness of women in sports, among other things. 

Kaplan says that the "snowball effect" argument from conservatives is disingenuous. 

“There are millions of transgender people who participate in activities in daily life, including sports activities, in accordance with their gender identity. But that’s not what the court has to address here,” says Kaplan.  

Kaplan says the the worst case scenario would be if the Supreme Court leaves it up to the states to decide if transgender people can claim sex discrimination in court. Michigan is one of 29 states that do not have laws explicitly barring employers from discriminating against LGBTQ employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Aimee Stephens says the fact that someone can be fired from their job or denied housing based on their gender identity is wrong. 

“We’re not asking for anything special, we just want the same human rights that everybody else has," says Stephens. "And so far, we don’t have those, we’ve been denied, and the way things appear, they would just like to erase us all together.”

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

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