Addressing an unsettled evolving area of law, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled, on August 18th , that a Michigan funeral home did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring a transgender male employee to wear a man’s suit to work. EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., (E.D. Mich., No. 14-13710, 8/18/16). According to the Court, the funeral home was entitled to a religious exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion. The funeral home, a for-profit closely held corporation, qualified as a “person” and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) qualified as a government agency.
Specifically, the EEOC argued that the funeral home violated Title VII by firing a transgender employee, who was transitioning from male to female, for refusal to wear a man’s suit and, thus, to conform with masculine gender stereotypes. In addition, the EEOC argued that Congress’s mandate to eliminate discrimination in the workplace was a compelling government interest that warranted impinging on the funeral home’s religious beliefs. The funeral home argued that allowing the employee to wear a female uniform would substantially burden its free exercise of religion because doing so conflicted with its sincerely held religious beliefs. The court agreed.
In coming to its decision, the District Court determined that the EEOC failed to establish how the burden on the employer’s religious exercise was the least restrictive means of eliminating unlawful gender stereotypes. The Court stated that it “fails to see why the EEOC couldn’t propose a gender-neutral dress code as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here.” According to the Court, “if the compelling governmental interest is truly in removing or eliminating gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of clothing (i.e., making gender “irrelevant”), the EEOC’s chosen manner of enforcement in this action does not accomplish that goal.”