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Are gender identity and religious freedom at odds in America?

By Leeds Brown Law | August 31, 2016

A recent ruling against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has inspired mixed reactions. The case (EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., E.D. Mich., No. 14-13710, 8/18/16) centered on whether a Michigan funeral home violated federal employment bias law because it required its biological male employee to wear a suit at work.

The EEOC claimed that the funeral home was sex-stereotyping when it fired the employee, who was transitioning from male to female, because she failed to conform to their dress code that required men to wear suits. The EEOC’s position was that the funeral home was discriminating based on gender identity and that that was sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ultimately the court dismissed the EEOC’s sex-stereotyping claim because the funeral home established under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that enforcement would substantially burden its ability to conduct business based on its owner’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

Mixed responses

Religious groups generally and Alliance Defending Freedom specifically claimed the ruling was “a significant victory for religious liberty”. They chastised the Obama Administration for attempting to expand the reach of Title VII without going through Congress.

However, employment law attorneys and members of the ACLU felt the implications of the decision were “staggering,” “disappointing” and “dangerous”. There are concerns that the ruling could potentially allow business owners to use freedom of religion to harm and discriminate against employees in non-religious situations.

Still others in legal circles felt the unique facts of the ruling made it too difficult to draw conclusions about its potential impact on other transgender bias cases, whether they’re brought by government agencies or private parties.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Currently Title VII contains no specific employment protections based on transgender status.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was nearly unanimously approved by Congress in 1993 – then signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Under the RFRA the federal government is required to:

  • Refrain from limiting religious freedom, unless they have a compelling societal reason for doing so.
  • Select the least intrusive method to achieve their goal, if they need to restrict religious freedom.

The law remains controversial to this day and has been challenged, and in some cases, defeated. For this reason, many individual states have enacted their own religious freedom acts based on the federal model.

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