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Court Weighs Religious v. Transgender Rights

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 11, 2017 1:20 PM

Aimee Stephens, who was born a male, worked for a funeral home for six years.

One day, Stephens went to work and told the funeral director that she was changing her gender and wanted to start wearing women's clothing to work. The director fired her, citing religious beliefs.

Now a federal appeals court is pondering whether such religious rights outweigh transgender rights. It's nearly the same issue that is already before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Funeral Home's Ministry

In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against RG&GR Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. for firing Stephens after she announced her gender transition. Thomas Rost said he would be violating "God's commands" to allow Stephens to wear a skirt while ministering to grieving customers.

The funeral director's lawyers asserted he was protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. U.S. District Judge Sean Cox agreed and dismissed the case.

"Rost operates the funeral home as a ministry to serve grieving families while they endure some of the most difficult and trying times of their lives," the judge said.

Forcing the funeral home to employ Stephens "would impose a substantial burden on the ability of the Funeral Home to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs," Cox ruled.

Dress Code Defense?

On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the such a decision could open the door to more harmful conditions for transgenders and people who face discrimination.

"Employers claiming that they didn't have to hire women, or pay them as much, because of views that women should not be working outside the home, and that sort of thing," attorney John Knight told Metro Weekly.

Knight said the appeals court seemed skeptical about Rost's claim that his decision was based upon a dress code. "I think the court understands that this is not just about dress codes," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In that case, a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs.

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